- The Guardian
- Issue #2047
Like Denmark and the European Commission before it, Belgium is the latest government to ban TikTok. Civil servants are no longer allowed to use the app. According to the relevant ministers, the app should even be removed from all mobile phones used professionally in government departments.
TikTok is wildly popular among young people. It is a platform that distributes short and light-hearted videos.
Initially, it was mainly about viral dances, but it quickly grew into a major news source for young people. In the US, nearly 100 million people use the app.
The popular video app has been under fire for a while now. In Europe, some are pushing for such a ban, and in Canada and the US, the app has been banned for government officials for some time. In the US, a national ban prohibiting everyone in the country from being able to download and use the app is even on the agenda in the Senate.
Two reasons are given for banning the app. The first claim is that TikTok could collect massive data from Western users. Secondly, there is the supposed fear that the platform might be used for “Chinese propaganda” purposes. There are fears that ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, “could be forced to cooperate with the Chinese government.”
The measures being taken by Western governments are unfounded for several reasons. First, it is obvious that senior state officials do leave sensitive information on their mobile phones or PCs. But they do not use an app for this. Sensitive info is protected by encryption, not by allowing or removing some apps.
In that context, it is significant that Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Petra De Sutter and Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder have said they will continue using TikTok. Second, for any app to work in Europe today, it must comply with privacy protection rules, better known by the acronym GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).
There is no 100 per cent guarantee, but regarding this, TikTok is as safe as other apps.
Ethical hacker Baptiste Robert observes: “As far as we can see, in its current state, TikTok doesn’t have suspicious behaviour and is not exfiltrating unusual data. Getting data about the user device is quite common in the mobile world, and we would obtain similar results with Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others.”
And yes, TikTok has been found to have violated journalists’ privacy in the past. But that equally applies to other apps (which are sometimes worse in this respect).
There is little doubt that the CIA directly or indirectly monitors social media platforms it deems interesting. Google, for instance, is known to be teeming with ex-CIA agents. In other countries, intelligence agencies are bound to do their jobs, too. In 2020, it was revealed that Israeli intelligence was spying through WhatsApp.
Thirdly, the State Security of Belgium has not yet been able to identify any case of spying through TikTok. In any case, the app does not contain explicit spying software.
Finally, the Chinese government does not need such an app to spy. If it wants to do so, it will use something different and more sophisticated than a simple hot air balloon or funny video app.
In reality, the problem is not about spying. It’s about privacy. There is no doubt that TikTok collects a lot of information about users. But they are not the only ones. Apps like Facebook and Instagram and many other seemingly innocuous ones collect data and sell it on to data brokers, who in turn sell it on to companies that can make a profit from this treasure trove of consumer behaviour.
In an article in Foreign Policy, two professors put it this way: “If we want to address the real problem, we need to enact serious privacy laws, not security theatre, to stop our data from being collected, analyzed, and sold – by anyone. Such laws would protect us in the long term, and not just from the app of the week.”
The real reasons for the ban on TikTok have nothing to do with spying or security. They are dictated by other considerations.
The first reason is of a commercial nature. TikTok has managed to break the monopoly of its chief US competitors. They are Alphabet (YouTube) and Meta (Facebook and Instagram). Last year, they made huge profits, $279 billion and $117 billion respectively.
Recently, famous rapper and actor Snoop Dogg signed an exclusivity deal with TikTok and not Spotify or Apple Music. Given the huge profit potential, the stakes are very high here.
These corporations and their political backers don’t like to see those profit opportunities lost in the US. As was the case earlier with Huawei (5G), Washington wants to literally eliminate Chinese competitors by banning them.
Economic warfare is the name of the game. As has been customary in recent years, the European Union dances to the tune of the US, and now so does Belgium.
The second reason is geopolitical. In the eyes of US imperialism, China is increasingly seen as a threat and a malevolent power. Just think of the balloon hysteria and the increased war rhetoric around the Taiwan issue. We are experiencing a new Cold War.
All around China, the US has built a military encirclement. Washington is also making one military alliance after another with countries in the region. It seems like the US is rushing to prepare for an armed conflict with China.
The whole fuss around TikTok serves to develop or reinforce a hostile image of China. For engaging in military conflict, it is important to have public opinion on your side. The ban on TikTok fits into this and is therefore far from an innocent issue.
Again, Europe and Belgium are neatly in step with Big Brother. For China expert Rogier Creemers, who teaches at Leiden University, banning TikTok on civil servants’ service phones is akin to symbol politics.
“In this, we are following the US, which currently demonises anything to do with China.”