Citing Censorship Concerns, Trump Threatens to Censor TikTok

By Christopher Derian

Founded on enlightenment values, the United States advertises itself as a beacon of freedom on the global stage. Prominent among those principles, and enumerated in the First Amendment of our Constitution, are freedoms of speech and expression.

In popular media and academia, the censorship of free thought is pejoratively associated with less democratic, less “free” nations. Throughout history, certain governments have sought to stifle the exchange of free ideas within and across their borders. And, throughout history, the United States has condemned such behavior.

The age of the internet has exacerbated the efforts of authoritarian regimes to control the political narratives of its peoples. For years China, among other nations, has banned the use of several websites run by American companies. In July 2009, China blocked websites run by Facebook when the application assisted communication among pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. China has blocked Google’s websites in varying degrees since as early as 2007, with the Chinese government citing censorship concerns. And in 2018, Google shut down its plan to create a censored search engine specially for China due to outrage amongst human rights organizations. Other notable websites banned in China include Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Wikipedia.

Many in the West are critical of this censorship and liken the banning of websites to the burning of books, and the suppression of anti-government attitudes. The United States does not have a long precedent of banning legal websites. In light of this lack of precedent, recent noises by the Trump administration has taken the Tech industry by surprise:

Since early August 2020, President Trump has threatened to ban TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned social media application. (That is, notwithstanding a successful acquisition by a U.S. company). The move came after reports revealed TikTok censors certain content deemed critical of the Chinese government, for example, videos that mention Tiananmen Square. In further support of a ban, the Trump administration has cited a national security threat in TikTok’s Chinese affiliation given TikTok’s practice of harvesting its users data. TikTok is owned by ByteDance Ltd., a Beijing-based technology firm. TikTok, which features short dance and comedy videos, is the most downloaded application in 2020 with over one-hundred million users in the U.S.

Some that oppose the ban see an autocratic maneuver by President Trump to silence anti-Trump rhetoric on the application. Of course, political discourse pervades all social media, but the organized politically charged “trends” on TikTok make it uniquely poised to create real-world difficulties for the Trump administration and the President’s reelection campaign.

On June 20, 2020, President Trump arrived in Tulsa, Oklahoma for a campaign rally. His expectations, evidenced by tweets, was of an overflowing stadium packed with the President’s supporters. Over one million people had RSVP’d to the event. In reality, the 19,000-person capacity stadium was not even one-third full. The culprit: a growing TikTok trend that encouraged users to RSVP to Trump events to create a false sense of attendance. This trend is among many designed to “troll” President Trump and his campaign. Despite these trolling efforts, the Trump administration has not offered any public indications that the threatened ban is linked to a personal or political vendetta against the application or its users.  

While many users of TikTok, as well as parts of the Technology Industry, are outraged over the move from the Trump Administration, others recognize the national security threat innate in an adversarial government’s ostensible access to domestic data.

The TikTok application collects personal data from its users, such as location and IP addresses. Many users permit the application to access photos, microphones, and cameras. U.S. intelligence agencies have raised concerns that such data could end up in the hands of the Chinese government and be used for a number of nefarious purposes.

The tension between security and freedom is not new to Americans, as evidenced by the expansion of airport screening following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and more recently with the COVID-19 lockdowns. The questions for President Trump, and the American people, are to what degree we value TikTok; to what level TikTok is a national security threat; and, finally, to which answer does society believe is more important?

So, how does TikTok threaten the United States? TikTok has claimed that the Chinese government has never sought user data and that it would deny any such request. If American officials could take China and TikTok at its word, the case would be closed and TikTok could continue its U.S. operations with as much or as little scrutiny as applied to U.S.-based technology companies. After all, companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google collect the data of its users in similar ways, though privacy laws restrict the U.S. government’s access to that data. But can the United States trust China’s claims that it does not have access to TikTok user’s data? A quasi-capitalist nation, China’s Communist Party maintains a despotic power over its private sector, and any governmental assurances to the contrary ought to be received with skepticism.

On August 7, 2020, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center announced that China, along with Iran and Russia, has been and continues to attempt to interfere with the 2020 presidential election. A Chinese Communist Party, with access to millions of United States citizens’ comprehensive online profiles has the potential to fuel a political interference campaign to a degree greater than the Russians 2016 attempts. Primary platforms used by Russia to interfere in the 2016 elections were social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where fake accounts imitating real U.S. citizens stoked political rivalry and spread disinformation in favor of Donald Trump’s bid for the White House. Chinese access to a social media platform as influential as TikTok, and the data that comes with it, should raise similar red flags.

President Trump pushed back against, and, at times, outright denied U.S. Intelligence Agencies’ warnings of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He has, however, been more receptive to warnings that China is now attempting to interfere in the 2020 election, possibly because China supposedly supports the Biden campaign.

Whether or not TikTok is aiding or abetting China’s election interference efforts is unknown, or at least not available to the public. How great must the risk be to justify a potential ban?

These latest cyber threats create a new dichotomy, wherein two democratic values are in tension: free speech and free and fair elections. With the United States and China vying for hegemonic status in the international political economy, our elections, the core of our democracy, must be defended at all costs.

Ultimately, this leads us as a nation to grapple with whether it is undemocratic to censor a smartphone application that threatens our democracy itself.