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Welcome to the TikTok Wars

We live in an age where apps wars between major nations have geo-technological fallout

By: EBR - Posted: Monday, July 27, 2020

"Never mind that apps also play a major role when it comes to setting global technology standards, a race in which China is extremely active."
"Never mind that apps also play a major role when it comes to setting global technology standards, a race in which China is extremely active."

by Andres Ortega*

Who would have ever thought it would come to this? An app used to exchange short videos and very popular with young people, but owned by Chinese capital, is said to have nefarious effects — such as passing on user-generated data to the Chinese government.

Geo-technological fallout

For that reason, TikTok will likely be only the first of an entire string of Chinese apps that face banning from key markets.

Apart from the negative impact on China’s reputation, the TikTok ban could very well have negative consequences for the technological development of the People’s Republic.

More stunning yet, the geo-technological fallout from the TikTok war goes much further than the possible impact of the bans that are starting to be imposed on the app.

A quick recap

The TikTok social media platform has around 800 million users throughout the world. Designed for the amusement of teenagers, it also has a growing political dimension.

For example, it was very actively used in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. There, it has also been accused of undermining the current Trump campaign.

Interestingly, TikTok is not available in China, although the similar Douyin — from which TikTok emerged for the rest of the world — is available.

India leads the way

The app is owned by the giant Chinese corporation ByteDance and has its greatest following in India (some 100 million downloads in 2020, taking it to a total of 200 million, followed by the United States and Brazil).

So it really hurt that the ban was first issued in India. What will hurt even more is if the ban there will be followed by the United States and Australia.

To be sure, the armed skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops in a disputed border area in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas is part of the equation. Few analysts doubt that the banning of these apps by India is closely related to the incident.

Mincing no words

The official reason given by the Indian government for banning this and another 58 Chinese apps is that it is “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.”

Most specifically, it accuses the Chinese apps of the ability to pass on user-generated data to the Chinese government.

Under such circumstances, the broad-based ban in India — which includes some notable ones such as WeChat, the Alibaba browser, the Weibo microblogging platform, the Clash of Kings strategy game, as well as mapping applications — cannot come as a surprise.

TikTok, which for several months has been headed by a U.S. former director of Disney, denies this. It states that it stores its data in the United States, with a back-up copy in Singapore. Indeed, to date, nobody has produced evidence to the contrary.

Precaution matters

However, just as the UK government has now done on banning Huawei from its 5G networks, the Indian government is not prepared to expose its citizens to any Chinese data sucking shenanigans until incontrovertible evidence has been found.

For an understandable reason, it prefers a precautionary path. Never mind that most actions occurring in China regarding data management, including the social scoring system, imbue little to no confidence in other nations that China follows proper data privacy procedures.

Why losing access to India hurts

India is an essential market for the technological development of China, although not in terms of income. For example, last year it accounted for less than 1% of ByteDance’s global revenues.

But revenue generation is unlikely to be the goal for a country running on a lot of “funny money.”

Data access is the real currency. And here, it matters greatly that last year, six of the 10 most downloaded apps in India were Chinese.

Techno-nationalism at work

To be sure, there is also an element of techno-nationalism at play in India. Equipped with impressive software skills among its engineers, the country wants to develop its own homegrown industry in this area.

The ban against the Chinese apps has helped give India’s app industry a boost.

Pompeo weighing in

In the wake of the Indian ban at the end of June, more bans may be ahead elsewhere. The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has hinted that his country is studying a similar prohibition owing to the threat to national security.

A “domino effect” of this nature would undermine the aspirations of a made-in-China “digital Silk Road” that Beijing is trying to push.

There is a clear and legitimate perception not just in India that China’s real purpose, as with the Belt and Road initiative, is to encircle India as well as other countries.

What about Europe?

Apps are a flourishing component of online services. Indeed, they are one of the central areas of rivalry between the United States and China, with Europe also being dragged into the conflict.

Perhaps the most important business and strategic dimension is that apps are also a major source of data for developing Artificial Intelligence, including facial recognition technology.

That is why the dark vision of the Chinese trying to take their hyper-invasive Orwellian “social scoring” strategies global are by no means far-fetched.

Never mind that apps also play a major role when it comes to setting global technology standards, a race in which China is extremely active.

Conclusion

In short, there is much more at stake than a simple application for teenagers.

Editor’s note: This article is based on an analysis published at Elcano Royal Institute: The TikTok war.

*senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank
**first published in: www.theglobalist.com

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