Future Tense

TikTok Caught Up in Geopolitics Once Again

The TikTok logo on a black phone screen.
A photo of the TikTok logo on a phone screen, taken on May 27 in Paris. Martin Bureau/Getty Images

For its 30 million American users, the app TikTok means viral dance videos, hashtag challenges, and irreverent memes. But for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, TikTok is a matter of national security. On Monday, Pompeo told Fox News that the U.S. might ban the short-form video platform and other Chinese social media apps.

The announcement reflects mounting tensions between the U.S. and China, whose technology companies face ongoing scrutiny. ByteDance, a Beijing-based internet company, owns TikTok, and when questioned about the possibility of a ban on the app, Pompeo said, “We are taking this very seriously. We are certainly looking at it.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen, of course. But the China-U.S. tech relationship is fraught. “We’ve worked on this very issue for a very long time,” he continued. “Whether it was the problems of having Huawei technology in your infrastructure, we’ve gone all over the world, and we’re making real progress getting that out. We declared ZTE a danger to American national security. With respect to Chinese apps on peoples’ cellphones, the United States will get this one right too.” In fact, in December, the U.S. banned members of the armed forces from using TikTok.

Pompeo’s statement trails a new security law that positions China to strengthen its control over Hong Kong. The legislation, which took effect last week, sanctions both online surveillance and censorship. Now the police can remove internet posts and punish corporations that refuse to comply with their requests for user data. After more than a year of civil unrest and protests, the law allows authorities in Hong Kong to hamper opposition to the Communist Party. It has already resulted in several arrests. In response to the new legislation, on Monday, Facebook, Google, and Twitter announced that they would ignore requests for user data from the Hong Kong government.

In a statement, Facebook wrote, “We are pausing the review of government requests for user data from Hong Kong pending further assessment of the National Security Law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with international human rights experts. We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions.”

Twitter and Google will likewise review the new law, though none of the three companies has stated whether it’ll eventually comply with parts of it. The Chinese government has threatened to fine internet companies nearly $13,000 if they refuse to comply with court orders. Employees at said companies could face jail sentences of up to one year if they fail to remove posts.

Not to be one-upped by American tech companies, TikTok took its response to the new security law even further. Within the week, the app’s listing will disappear from the App Store and elsewhere in Hong Kong. It will also stop working for those who have already downloaded it there.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.