Tiktok and finding the real digital imperialists

The Indian government has different concerns.

Published: 12th July 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th July 2020 08:20 AM   |  A+A-


The US and India have crossed swords on whether customs duty should be levied on Harley Davidson bikes, but the two countries are sailing in the same boat when it comes to banning the hugely popular Chinese app TikTok. Soon after the border clashes with China, in a retaliatory ‘surgical strike’ India banned TikTok and 58 other apps on national security concerns. It’s hurting both sides of the border. For TikTok, India’s 120 million users is a huge market, the largest, perhaps, after China. In India, the app was a form of self-expression in dance and quirky gigs especially for millions of rural youth.  

The Indian government has different concerns. The Union  ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said the apps were banned as they were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers which have locations outside India”, thereby comprising the “sovereignty and integrity of India”. The US administration, which has been blaming China for the spread of what Donald Trump calls the ‘China virus’, found a good point of alliance. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lost no time, and in an interview with Fox News, revealed that a ban on TikTok was “something we are looking at.” That he was serious about it was apparent when he compared a ban on TikTok with the earlier bans imposed on Chinsese tech giants Huawei and ZTE. 

Chinese controls

Though TikTok denies it is involved in any snooping, and claims it stores user data in servers in the country of origin, critics have pointed to its questionable privacy practices like a leaked moderation guidelines that discourage criticism of events like the Tiananmen Square protests. The fear is, as voiced by Sarah Cook, an analyst of the right wing think tank Freedom First:  “The Chinese government has a history of gaining control over nodes in the information system.”

However, the bigger concern cited is the symbiotic relationship between the Chinese state and Chinese companies, where the latter by law are required to share data with the government. The two specific laws that rope in Chinese companies are the 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2014 Counter-Espionage Law. Article 7, for example, of the National Intelligence Law provides that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law.” 

We are right to be concerned about possible data mining by Chinese companies that may fall into the hands of the Chinese government. However, it is a practice that goes back centuries to the East India Company where private commercial operators collaborated with their governments to subdue and colonize indigenous people. What is repugnant though is US double-speak. After all its intelligence agencies have been using private commercial companies for decades to spy on, assassinate leaders and remove elected governments. 

US double-speak

We have forgotten how the United Fruit Company in the 1950s and 60s became an arm of the US government in the Central American countries of Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras. United Fruit not only became the largest single landowner in central America; it ran postal services, nurtured ‘banana’ republics on behalf of the CIA, and deposed any regime that questioned US domination.

Or, more recently during the continuing Middle East conflicts, where Leidos Holdings merged with another defense contractor Lockheed Martin to become a $50 billion private military powerhouse. The merged entity’s 8,000 private operatives, worked closely with the US military command, doing everything from analyzing signals for the US National Security Agency (NSA) to hunting down suspected ‘terrorist’ fighters for US Special Forces.  

Cyber snooping is not the prerogative of China and Huawei. Revelations by Edward Snowden, the former US defense contractor, leaked classified information on how the US and its allies were running numerous global surveillance programs. One of these was a government snooping programme called ‘Prism’ which rode on the backs of nine US internet firms, and tapped into their servers to glean private information of millions of American citizens. The collaborating companies included Facebook, Google, 
Microsoft and Yahoo. Or, even more recently, the company Cambridge Analytica became a tool of the Donald Trump election campaign. A whistleblower in the company, Christopher Wylie, exposed how Cambridge Analytica bought personal profiles of 50 million or more Facebook users in the US from an independent researcher Aleksandr Kogan. The data was then used to soft-target a mass of potential Trump supporters.  

The Chinese, Huawei and TikTok are not innocent. But let us not pretend any of the other governments are. Those who have the wherewithal snoop on their own citizens, their neighbours and their trade competitors. That’s the new normal. We have advanced from the age of colonialism to digital imperialism. Technology has grown not to give us greater freedom, but to wipe out whatever individual privacy we thought we enjoyed.

Fight on
India has banned  TikTok stating they were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data’. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, too, in an interview revealed that a ban on TikTok was “something we are looking at


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