The UK should ban TikTok

Zineb Riboua

August 13, 2020

China is winning the data war. The Chinese Communist party has access to all kinds of personal information which should be private, all over the world. For instance, car companies including Tesla, Volkswagen, BMW, Ford and Nissan have been caught feeding data to Beijing about their customers – even outside China.

The US is leading the world in undermining China’s ability to run riot with privacy violations all over the world. It has taken drastic action which the rest of the western world should mirror. For example, Pompeo recently announced the expansion of what is known as the “clean network” in order to safeguard American citizens and business from Chinese aggression.

But America’s aim is broader than that. It does not want to stand against China alone. Pompeo invited other “freedom-loving nations” around the world to join the clean network. There is no excuse for other western countries standing by. The UK in particular, thanks to its special relationship with the US, has a duty to support international efforts in this area. And TikTok might just present the perfect opportunity to do that.

TikTok is an innocuous-seeming video sharing application, developed and owned by the Chinese multinational internet company, ByteDance. The company has very close links with the Chinese communist party. Over the years, it has developed strong partnerships with the ministry of public security in particular.

In 2017, Bytedance bought another app, called That was a strategic move. It merged with Douyin, another similar application that was already tailored for the Chinese market and created TikTok, with the specific aim of targeting markets outside China.

TikTok was always very attractive to the US tech industry. It uses advanced algorithms and artificial intelligence technology to provide its users with content feeds designed specifically for their exact preferences. But concerns over TikTok’s use of personal data stretch back to the beginning of last year.

Some countries, including India and later the US, have already taken the step of banning TikTok. The UK should be next.

In February of last year, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hit TikTok with a record fine of $5.7m for collecting data on children under the age of 13. As secretary of state Mike Pompeo put it, “with parent companies based in China, apps like TikTok and WeChat and others are significant threats to personal data of American citizens, not to mention tools for Chinese Communist party content censorship.”

Let’s not forget that while China plays the victim when it is held to account for its actions abroad, it has no qualms with banning foreign software within its own country. It has, for example, already banned the use of WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, among others.

International cooperation has been weak in this area so far, but that does not mean it is impossible. Just last year, another effort to control Chinese activity, led once again by the US, concluded in the successful agreement of terms from 30 EU and NATO countries around regulating Huawei.

The Chinese Communist party has a long history of deception and subterfuge. We know very little about how it uses our private data. The CCP’s unwillingness to cooperate or draw clear-cut partnerships or agreements with western countries is a huge red flag. We simply cannot allow the status quo to continue because if it does, a heinous authoritarian regime that does not believe in freedom of speech or individual liberty will earn a worrying amount of political control, and freedom and democracy around the world will be much worse off for it.


Written by Zineb Riboua

Zineb Riboua is a research intern at the Atlantic Council. She is the founder of the China in MENA Project.


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