DENVER — President Donald Trump has given the company that owns the popular video-sharing app TikTok until Sept. 15 to find a new buyer for its American operations or face being banned from the U.S. altogether - but TikTok said Monday it would not go down without a fight.
TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd. and has been downloaded by billions of users all over the world, including roughly 175 million Americans.
In an executive order signed earlier this month, President Trump laid out the security risks the app poses and accused TikTok of censoring content and spreading propaganda videos. The president then gave the company 90 days to change ownership. However, the app's owner is now considering suing the Trump Administration over the executive order.
While some applaud the move to reign in Chinese technology companies and their data mining tactics, others say banning TikTok could have unintended consequences.
The evolution of data collection
Every time users download an app, companies need to ask permission to collect some data.
Marc Fischer, CEO and co-founder of Dogtown Media, has been developing apps since 2009. He said the creation of apps and data collected has changed over time.
“When we got started, I would compare it to the Wild West. The app ecosystem was pretty lawless,” Fischer said. “There were barely any rules as far as what you could and could not do with your app.”
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where the data of millions of Facebook users was mined and then used for political advertising, companies like Facebook and Google started to put more privacy protections in place for users.
“The platforms themselves, the operating systems like Google and Apple, they implement their own restrictions as time goes on,” said Scott Quinney, the director of engineering for 303 software.
These days, more apps are requiring users to give it permission to access sensitive data each time the program is in use.
What’s the harm of collecting data?
Despite the changes, apps still have the ability to collect treasure troves of user data so long as they are given permission.
“Some of the things that you can garner from an app developer from your users include Geo location, where are they, where are they going, where have they been, who have the interacted with,” Fischer said. “You can get very invasive, to be honest with you, and analyze things like chats. You can look at their likes and their dislikes and create a user persona around this person.”
Permissions are split into two categories: data that is considered benign and data that is considered dangerous. On the benign side, an app might ask permission to access the internet or to ask the make and model of the phone.
Geo-tracking, access to contact lists, messages, web browser history, keystrokes and more are considered dangerous data.
“In the end it’s a little like telling somebody a secret. Once it’s out there, you have entrust that person,” said Quinney. “Really, if you think about it, everything that’s on your phone — there’s a way for a developer to access that one way or another.”
Most of the time, the data is used to make sure the app is running smoothly or for advertising. Some of the data is sold to marketing companies to create targeted, or user-specific, ads.
This is the reason users will see ad after ad pop up for a toaster on their Facebook feed after looking for one on an internet search engine.
However, the data could also potentially be used for more nefarious reasons.
“That data, when it falls in the wrong hands, can be dangerous,” Fischer said. “There’s a big fear amongst people in Washington, D.C. that we have given a lot of our user data to firms abroad to enable espionage to take place.”
The move to block TikTok
Even before President Trump signed an executive order on TikTok, security experts and members of congress were targeting the app.
“Having a Chinese intelligence agency gathering that information on us and using it perhaps in a cyber attack at some point is very concerning,” said U.S. Rep. Ken Buck.
He co-sponsored a bill to ban the app from being downloaded on government devices in order to keep national secrets safe.
“I’m not sure if it has a good government application if, in fact, our adversaries not gathering information on us,” Rep. Buck said.
The move to ban the app from government devices has garnered bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress. Even before being passed, however, the State Department, Department of Homeland Security and TSA have blocked the app for their employees.
One of the biggest concerns for Rep. Buck is what China can require companies to provide to the government.
“The Chinese government does not allow companies to be separate entities. We have to understand everything that a Chinese company has, the Chinese government gets,” Rep. Buck said.
Rep. Buck said he believes there eventually needs to be more regulations over the type of data that is collected and what it is used for. He juxtaposes it to the consumer protections that were put in place to regulate things like lead in paint or children’s toys.
“Now, we are in this high-tech world where it’s a whole different kind of consumer safety, but it’s every bit as important,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is not take away something from you. What we’re trying to do is make what you’re using safe.”
Ideally, he said he would like companies to ask permission every time data is collected for something like advertising, and transparency about what the data will be used for.
Rep. Buck supports the president’s move to require more accountability from TikTok and believes that if the video-sharing app was to be banned, another site would pop up to take its place in the ever-evolving world of social media.
Fischer, meanwhile, believes policy has been falling behind technology for years with as quickly as things change and evolve.
“I think that politics is always two steps behind tech and three steps behind what people really want,” Fischer said.
He said he believes some regulation on tech companies could be beneficial but said there could also be unintended consequences.
If Apple and Google were required to remove TikTok from their app stores for all users, for instance, Fischer believes that could cause Chinese users in particular to choose to buy Huawei phones instead, hurting the other companies’ market share.
“Regulation needs to be well thought through and we need to be prepared for any blow back that could happen,” Fischer said.
For now, while lawmakers consider regulations, Rep. Buck and both software developers encourage users to read through privacy agreements and be careful about the types of permissions they are giving to apps.
A tit-for-tat over TikTok
Beyond the security concerns, University of Denver professor Sam Zhao said he thinks there are also political tensions between the two countries at play.
“The U.S. has been very concerned about China’s technological superiority over the United States and the thought that China has gathered that technology through illegal ways,” Zhao said.
When he moved to the U.S. 35 years ago, Zhao said the Chinese government was concerned about American influence. Now, more than three decades later, he said the roles have reversed and the U.S. is the one that’s concerned about Chinese influence.
Over the past four years, Zhao said he has seen relations between the U.S. and China spiral and he doesn’t believe President Trump has a clear strategy.
“He’s very, very unpredictable,” Zhao said. “What he has done is not accomplished anything to make China change. He’s just talked a lot but accomplished almost nothing so far.”
Along with the security concerns, Zhao said the move to possibly ban TikTok could be a reprisal for China keeping its tech market blocked off.
China blocks its citizens from using companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter while the U.S. has allowed foreign companies to operate within its borders.
“From an American perspective, this is an uneven, kind of unfair playing field,” Zhao said. “The U.S. now is following and somehow kind of playing China’s playbook.”
During a press conference on Aug. 3, the president highlighted TikTok’s success and said it’s due in large part to the American market.
“I use the expression: It’s like the landlord and the tenant and without the lease the tenant doesn’t have the value. Well, we are sort of, in a certain way, the lease. We make it possible to have this great success,” President Trump said.
Zhao is apprehensive about the overall tensions between the U.S. and China currently, saying the two countries are competing toward the bottom rather than racing toward the top.
“What I’m concerned with is that these nations have come to some sort of new Cold War,” Zhao said.
He said the two countries need to work together rather than against one another in order to benefit both of their economies.
Cause and effect
In the social media world, there are hundreds of millions of casual users and then those who use the sites to earn a living. They are known as influencers.
JJ Yosh and his cat Simon, also known as the Backpacking Kitty, use social media sites to post videos of their outdoor adventures and garner millions of likes and shares.
“The way that we make money, for the most part, is through sponsorship deals with companies and endorsement deals,” Yosh said.
Yosh was already using social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to build an online brand when he joined TikTok about a year ago. He said he decided to join when there were some fluctuations in Instagram’s algorithms.
“TikTok was kind of this new frontier where they didn’t have these algorithm changes and limitations, so you could grow really fast,” Yosh said.
Carlos Salazar, meanwhile, uses the app to make comedy, self-defense, aerial acrobatics and pottery videos. Salazar then has a link on the app directing people to his Etsy account, where he sells self-defense tools and the pottery he makes.
“I had one of my videos go viral that is of a self-defense lanyard that I make,” Salazar said. “The video went viral on Monday and by Wednesday, I had over 3,000 views on my Etsy account.”
Salazar and Yosh said they are both aware that TikTok collects data and a little worried about what it could potentially by used for, however both said that’s the price of business.
“I mean, you sign your life away with everything,” Salazar said. “There’s certain things that if you want the luxury of using it then you’re going to have to give into something.”
However, Salazar said he would feel more comfortable if an American company were to buy TikTok because he trusts that the data at least would be protected from a foreign government.
Beyond that, Yosh said the privacy agreements are long and complicated so no one reads through them before signing.
“I may see 10 of these a day and I’m just clicking,” Yosh said. “It’s a huge burden for us as a user to be able to read through a lot of this legal jargon.”
Unlike most TikTok and app users, however, Yosh has an entire digital and marketing team behind him who is able to help him understand what he is signing and how it will affect him.
If TikTok were to be banned in the U.S., both men said they would simply move on to the next social media platform to promote their brands.
“There’s always going to be the next best thing and the next best thing. Technology is so advanced,” Salazar said.
For Yosh, diversification is key since social media trends come and go. As an influencer, finding a way to be ahead of the trends is a big part of finding success in social media.
“We would survive. We would find another platform to make it big on again,” Yosh said.
For now, President Trump has given TikTok until Sept. 15 to figure out its next move while millions of users in the U.S. collectively hold their breaths to find out whether the app will be banned.
TikTok vows legal fight against Trump administration
On Monday morning, TikTok said it would wage a legal fight against the Trump Administration's efforts to ban the popular, Chinese-owned service over national-security concerns.
TikTok, which is owned by China's ByteDance, insisted that it is not a national-security threat and that the government is acting without evidence or due process.
The company said it would file suit against the government later Monday in federal court in California.
"Now is the time for us to act," the company said in a press release. "We do not take suing the government lightly; however, we feel we have no choice but to take action to protect our rights and the rights of our community and employees."
A copy of the complaint could not be immediately obtained.
In recent weeks, the Chinese-owned app was in talks with Microsoft to purchase them, but with the lawsuit, TikTok switched gears is now going on the offensive.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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