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Talk of banning TikTok sparks calls for a more open internet in China

TikTok video sharing app. (Pexels/Released)
August 16, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Ongoing negotiations between Microsoft and Beijing-based software company ByteDance over the possible acquisition of the Chinese-owned video platform TikTok have highlighted security and privacy concerns among Chinese internet users, while sparking a rare public call to open up the Great Firewall.

TikTok could become totally independent from ByteDance, leaving it free to continue operating overseas amid growing security concerns, especially in the U.S., Hong Kong’s English-language South China Morning Post cited sources close to the negotiations as saying.

But ByteDance is reportedly reluctant to go along, the paper said.

U.S. President Donald Trump will take action “in the coming days” against TikTok, as it poses a national security risk, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Aug. 3, accusing the platform of “feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Meanwhile, the Global Times, which has close ties to the official paper of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the People’s Daily, hit out at the threat, saying it had turned the negotiation into a “fire sale.”

Some in China’s growing high-tech sector have called for TikTok to bring the case to the New York-based United States Court of International Trade on intellectual property grounds, it said.

TikTok, which is widely known in China as the international arm of video platform Douyin, would keep its name and branding under the spinoff plan, the South China Morning Post reported.

Regular users of Douyin and Alibaba’s online selling platform Taobao told RFA that those platforms are already a privacy and security risk for their users.

One user, who gave only her surname Yang, said she had recently received a number of notifications of products after she mentioned them in face-to-face conversations with friends, suggesting that the Taobao app was listening to her through her phone’s microphone.

“It’s Douyin and also Taobao,” Yang said. “If I talk about something with my colleagues, it will really push related things at me.I think it may be an eavesdropping function.”

Jin Chun, a former big data engineer at Huawei’s Southern Research Institute, believes that Taobao and other apps are quite likely to be monitoring users’ data in such ways.

“Big data will usually monitor your clipboard, or some of the more important calls,” Jin said. “Taobao will have all of her private information. This definitely happens, on WeChat, too.”

“Any app approved by the Chinese Communist Party can be instructed by it to engage in surveillance and spying activities to collect information of all kinds,” he said. “I have no doubt about that.”

Requests to ByteDance for comment were received but not responded to by the time of writing. Taobao didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The dispute briefly sparked calls for China to respond by loosening its complex system of blocks, filters and human censorship that make up its Great Firewall, and effectively seal off Chinese internet users in a bubble of content approved by their government.

‘Diplomatic warfare’

James Liang, founder of the online travel agency Ctrip, said in an article on that the U.S. is using “diplomatic warfare” to persuade its allies to block Chinese technology companies, citing the barring of Huawei from 5G bidding processes in several countries.

“If we simply adopt a tit-for-tat strategy and implement the same xenophobic barriers, we will leave matters in the hands of the U.S.,” Liang wrote, in an article that was later deleted from the Chinese internet.

“Our countermeasures should be to open up further,” Liang wrote, according to a cached copy of the deleted article available on Tuesday. “The United States wants to block WeChat and TikTok, so we can do the opposite.”

Liang proposed opening up China’s internet to overseas players like Google, which left China amid a censorship row in 2020.

“Suppose we open up to Google and other international mainstream internet companies, and the United States blocks WeChat and Tiktok,” he wrote, adding that such a move would make life easier for Chinese researchers and innovators to communicate with their overseas counterparts.

“Our cultural and creative workers need to keep up with trends and fashions in global culture in order to create cultural products that global consumers like,” he wrote, flying in the face of general secretary Xi Jinping’s insistence that China block foreign cultural products and produce more content approved by the Communist Party.

Liang said opening up China’s internet would also attract more overseas talent to live and work in China, citing the inconvenience of censorship to expats and their families, while enabling overseas Chinese to promote Chinese products and companies on overseas platforms.

He said such a move would quickly undermine U.S. criticisms of China’s protectionism and lack of freedom and human rights protection, and strike a huge blow to the U.S.’ image internationally and win Beijing more allies.