Prior to the last month, TikTok was known, for the most part, simply as a platform for teenagers to post silly videos of themselves lip-syncing and performing comedy skits. Within the past few weeks, TikTok has evolved into a source for debate as to whether American citizens should be wary of their privacy while using the app or even go so far as to delete it altogether. With increasing tensions between China and the United States exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration seems to be examining China’s overall threat to the country, starting with national security. This is actually not the first time the United States’ government has looked at TikTok as a potential security threat: last December, the Department of Defense suggested deleting the app to those in the military. Last week, the Senate unanimously voted in favor of banning the use of TikTok on government devices. Thus, it seems that President Trump is not alone in viewing TikTok as a potential threat to user privacy and national security; however, many are questioning his justification of imposing an executive order, effectively banning any download of TikTok or WeChat on citizens’ devices. Disregarding any personal feelings towards the app or whether or not TikTok is indeed a threat to national security when analyzing the evidence, President Trump ultimately exceeded his powers by banning TikTok and WeChat.
President Trump did not abide by any presidential rules in his executive order. The president enacted the order by citing the 1970s International Emergency Economic Powers Act. This act stipulates that the president is allowed to regulate an economic transaction in the state of an emergency. It does not, however, include implementing restrictions on the exchange of ideas and information. TikTok is a combination of both a source of income for the Chinese company ByteDance as well as a method to communicate and spread information, but the latter aspect protects the app from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. As this was the rule President Trump used to prove that the TikTok and WeChat ban was in the scope of his powers and because it does not actually provide this justification, the president has no authorization in executing an order of this magnitude. Enacting an executive order without following a pertinent rule is a significant overstepping of presidential power. It also can be viewed as a form of constitutional hardball, which is defined as crossing over boundaries in order to advance a political agenda.
In addition, there is not enough evidence to prove that TikTok and WeChat are feasible threats. ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, has been forthcoming in what information it stores and tracks, this version of the app is only available to the United States, so the information is stored on servers in Singapore and the U.S., and TikTok executives are adamant that the app will never disclose personal information to the Chinese government. The information that TikTok stores is general data that most other social media apps also collect. In that sense, Facebook and Google are just as much of a threat as TikTok. With the servers located in Singapore and the U.S., it is more difficult for the Chinese government to access the data, thus resulting in less likelihood of the security breach the Trump Administration cites as a source for the ban. Furthermore, as TikTok is the American version of the app, it is not as inclined to give user information to the Chinese government. ByteDance has an additional version of the app that is exclusive to China, which would pique the Chinese government’s interest more so than the app’s version available to Americans. When a president does not substantiate his or her motives with sufficient evidence, citizens should be wary of this form of democratic backsliding.
Banning WeChat—and by extension, TikTok—is unconstitutional. Among other protections, the First Amendment prohibits government restriction on freedom of speech. Because WeChat and TikTok are both platforms where users can communicate with each other and share ideas, placing restrictions on such means to do so is a direct infringement on First Amendment rights. If the Trump Administration’s main goal is to protect national security, it would be more pertinent to support user privacy reform as a whole, rather than singling out individual platforms. Threatening any part of the constitution is a direct hazard to democracy and is indicative of democratic backsliding, but specifically, putting an element of such important freedom at risk is extremely concerning.
Some might argue that, since China has prohibited all American technology and media use by Chinese citizens, banning an app with such significant market and economic value that benefits the Chinese economy in the U.S. levels the playing field. If the Chinese government permitted the use of American technology by its citizens, the increase in profit for the U.S. would be astronomical, so it would only be fair, from an economic perspective, to limit Chinese profit in America by prohibiting TikTok. However, from a political perspective, a key American value is to live in a society not monitored or restricted by the government; thus, the line between economic and political reasons for banning TikTok is too blurred to provide a valuable argument.
Moreover, President Trump’s banning of TikTok and WeChat is not under his scope of powers, is not supported by enough evidence, and directly threatens the Constitution. When analyzing these points, it is clear that the president exceeded the confines of his authority, and anytime a president does something of this nature, it definitely warrants an examination into his or her tactics and motives in regard to the democracy as a whole.
For my case study in Democratic backsliding, I am studying the country of Benin. Benin experienced a total internet blackout the day of its election and often has arrests made based upon the Facebook comments of its citizens surrounding discussions of the president. While the case of banning TikTok is not as extreme as the case in Benin, the parallels are certainly present. I found it interesting that your article looks at this case as a direct threat to the constitution, and it makes me wonder what kinds of arguments were made in the Senate to result in a unanimous vote to ban the app. This is especially notable, as you pointed out because there has been weak action to regulate other media giants that control American information. A question that I have after reading this article is, while Trump’s questionable executive orders are not a new phenomenon, do you think that this specific order sets a new precedent? Or do you think that orders similar to this one have been passed before by Trump? If so, where do you think the responsibility lies, if any, to question these orders being signed?
I find the author’s arguments are extremely convincing and the evidence found clearly supports that Trump did overstep his power. The fact that he was able to do so is a sign of democratic backsliding and failure of the U.S. political system currently. More generally, it also seems obvious that Trump isn’t actually concerned with privacy rights or national security as much as he is with his obsessive quarrel with China – I am not arguing here that China poses no threat to the U.S., but Trump has obviously been repeatedly using China as a scapegoat to many ongoing issues, whether in the U.S. or in the world, and has been depicting China as an enemy more than justified in my opinion. In addition, American tech giants like Facebook and Google have also faced the same “accusations” as ByteDance/TikTok are facing now, but this time coming from the E.U. The 2018 GDPR policy has been considered as an inconvenient challenge to these U.S. companies, and they have tried to escape the GDPR’s restrictions… In that sense, the U.S. could face the same accusations used by Trump against the Chinese government… I think that many foreigners actually wonder about the extent to which certain of their data are being used by companies like Apple (cf. fingerprint recognition or face ID). So the fact that Trump has only been targeting one company – which oh happens to be foreign!, instead of addressing general privacy reforms on all tech companies both national and international, shows his actual lack of real concern for what’s at stake. I also think that diverting public attention on TikTok and WeChat is a way for him to reduce people’s focus on his own mishandling of the pandemic and other social problems in the U.S.