The US and China war comes to the grid with depth yet to be known. The fierce fight over the fashionable social network is just one example of what may come
On October 17, 2019, Mark Zuckerberg delivered a speech to Georgetown University students. In it, he talks about freedom of expression, extremism, the danger of the concentration of internet power in a few hands … In the ‘speech’ he does not forget China, he warns that now 6 of the 10 largest ‘apps’ on the planet are from that country and he gives TikTok an example by accusing it of censoring activists and protesters around the planet: “Is this the internet we want?” It does not mention that several years ago Zuckerberg himself had tried to acquire Musical.ly (TikTok seed) but his message is, almost a year later, setting international politics at a level yet to be determined.
For several weeks now, the fashionable social network, and the current great rival of the Facebook empire, has become the number one enemy of the Donald Trump government and its future is reeling between all kinds of accusations, movements, boycott attempts and options selling. But not only its developers live uncertain moments, everything indicates that what happens with it may depend much more than the viability of a platform that already hooks more than 800 million users monthly and that has forced them to retreat and counterattack sacred cows from the net.
How has a simple entertainment ‘app’ focused on music videos and co-opted, for the most part, by teenagers, come to shape geopolitics? Although analysts are considering different ideas, after what the US decided this Thursday, assuring that they are studying to veto more Chinese technology (it also wants to block Tencent, the owner of WeChat or the game League of Legends, among other products), it is seen that TikTok can be just the beginning. A platform in full swing that serves as the tip of the iceberg of a deeper policy and that resembles the US with the veto of Western ‘apps’ carried out by China for years and that was widely criticized by the US technology itself.
Against this background, everything indicates that weeks of turbulence in the network are coming and a possible change that still remains to be seen how far it goes and what impact it has. In media such as the BBC they already mention the ‘splinternet’, a concept that defines internet divided against the global concept of the network, while the Chinese company itself has just announced that it will go to court if the Government decides to veto it and has announced different plans to pay their influencers and not leave this platform. A soap opera that does not end, that is becoming more and more complicated and leaves many questions pending.
Why does everyone hate TikTok?
The first big question that arises when you delve into this soap opera is why it was TikTok, and now. It is a successful social network that has been growing at an impressive level for months among a very young audience with all the ethical debate that this raises, but it is not the only Chinese ‘app’ not even the largest, and it has been with us for years. The US assures that the reason is that its growth puts national security at risk, but even the experts are not clear about it. There have even been ‘hackers’ who studying the application have not found anything unusual that other social networks do not.
For its part, the ‘app’ has tried to defend itself by publishing part of its algorithm, giving reports of all the content it censors or even announcing the opening of a data center in Ireland for which it will invest up to $ 600 million. It has also taken a stand against censorship in Hong Kong and placed a former Disney US CEO at the helm of the show. But all these movements have not been able to with the main reason: the geopolitical board.
Its Chinese origin raises too many suspicions even among the most skeptical and it is seen as dangerous if the dictatorial government of China decides to get its hands on the TikTok data. Is this enough to veto its use? Another great question yet to be resolved. Although ByteDance, the company that owns the ‘app’, has always tried to separate from its government, even ensuring that they do not have any data center in their country, the ‘software’ is seen by many experts as a possible Trojan horse to influence the US in the midst of a ‘cold war’ between the two global superpowers.
Of course, as ‘Wired’ recalls, this attack on TikTok could also involve more exhaustive surveillance of the United States networks and their relationship with the Government. For all this and for the doubts that the veto could be similar to that carried out on a company like Huawei (in the end, their businesses and the nature of the companies are very different, as explained in TIME), Donald Trump himself has further promoted the purchase of the service of this internet giant in the United States by a company from that same country that the ban on it. But again the question remains as to what would change with this transaction.
What would Microsoft gain, and change?
Given the doubts that the fashionable social network is of Chinese origin, the most plausible solution, or at least the one that Donald Trump himself is pushing the most, is the purchase of this service by an American company and everything points to the best position in this is Microsoft, as they confessed themselves. They even have the approval of the president who, of course, has dropped that part of the money from the transaction should go to the state coffers because “they are making it possible.”
A move that TikTok seems to accept but that does not seem to be anything simple. What would you buy? How far would Microsoft have access? What would the relationship be like? These are some of the fringes that remain to be closed in an operation that, in theory, would take place in September.
As explained in media such as ‘The New York Times‘, BBC or ‘The Verge‘, the success, failure or the simple change that this transaction could generate depends, in any case, on what both companies negotiate. As the step taken by Microsoft may work, but it is riskiest. In principle, the company led by Satya Nadella would stay with the TikTok business in the US and also wants India, but little else.
We do not know what type of access they would have to the two pillars of the social network: the algorithm (one of the most aggressive and the key to its success) and the data of the millions of users. Those two points are the true heart of the company and it is not clear that Microsoft will be able to handle them.
This puts Microsoft in a delicate situation, pressure on the one hand by the US government, which will monitor every step, and on the other by the Chinese, which will also control every movement of the two companies. In return, it could gain, according to analysts, a lost image among young people, a platform on which to lean to clean up its idea of ’old’ technology and a new weapon to be able to fight face to face with Facebook, Google or Amazon.
Worth it? It is still too early to know, but we must remember that the last movements of the Seattle team in this regard did not go very well. They invested in LinkedIn and the result was not as expected and recently they closed Mixer, the rival of Twitch after leaving many millions on the service.
Towards an internet balkanization?
In the midst of this panorama of war without quarter and attempts to reach agreements to save furniture, there are already many users who see the global idea with which the Internet was born at risk. And experts who predict the end of it towards what the techno-politics expert and member of the Criptica group, Enric Lujan, has called the internet balkanization. After a situation in which borders did not exist and an equal internet was thought for all, for Lujan this latest war and the US decision to extend the veto to more Chinese technology could mean the total end of this idea.
The Atlantic also mentions a similar problem although it relates the situation more to a block fight in which very few giant actors from one side or the other end up controlling most of the network, thus ending up with plurality. A situation that brings the Internet closer to the Chinese idea than to the one properly defended by the United States. “Would it be worse if China retained sole control over the AI that makes TikTok and other services so effective, or if that technology were also in the hands of an American tech giant that’s one of the most valuable companies in the world?” they wonder.
While all these doubts are being resolved, other actors on the board such as Europe itself await the next step without showing their cards about what would happen if TikTok is definitely banned in the US. For his part, the one who has moved a piece is Mark Zuckerberg, interested in buying TikTok first and then worried that China has more and more power on the network, has just launched Reels, a service traced to his rival and integrated into Instagram. “Is this the internet we want?”