Republican and Democratic politicians alike have expressed concern about the popular social media app TikTok and the potential for that company to share user data with the Chinese government. But if TikTok is eventually banned in the U.S., as many lawmakers have pushed for, where does that leave the other apps run by companies outside of the U.S. or even those with ties to the Chinese government? Because TikTok isn’t the only one.
“If you are in favor of TikTok, you hate America,” right-wing media commentator Ben Domenech tweeted on Tuesday.
“The Chinese Communist Party has already poisoned so many Americans with fentanyl. Now it strives to poison our minds and children. Claiming it’s government expansion to ban TikTok is a CCP talking point from people who hate us,” Domench continued.
Obviously, it’s rather outlandish to argue that anyone who likes a social media app “hates America,” as there are plenty of Americans who simply don’t know or don’t care that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company. And many of those people who don’t care likely accept that they’re using all kinds of apps on a daily basis that suck up enormous amounts of data on them—some owned by American companies, others owned by a wide range of companies around the globe.
All we need to do is look at the most popular apps for the iPhone right now to see how selective the outrage over foreign ownership really is.
The most popular app on Apple’s store right now is Temu: Shop Like a Billionaire, which made a splash with a TV ad during the last Super Bowl that saw it rapidly ascend the app charts. Temu was launched in Boston last fall but is owned by Chinese firm PDD Holdings.
The number two app right now is CapCut, a video editor owned by ByteDance, the same Chinese company that owns TikTok. The number three app is TikTok, the focus of intense Congressional investigations right now over its Chinese ownership.
The sixth most downloaded app in Apple’s store right now is the ecommerce app Shein, owned by a Chinese company with a headquarters in Singapore. And the list goes on and on as you make your way down the charts.
Spotify, the music app that’s currently ranked number 16 on Apple’s app store, is Swedish-owned. And while most Americans are probably not concerned that the King of Sweden is going to learn about their favorite song this week, they’re probably equally unconcerned about the Chinese Communist Party knowing the location of their latest dance video.
Telegram messenger isn’t nearly as popular as Facebook or WhatsApp in the U.S., but it’s still ranked 21st in the Apple app store right now. Telegram is Russian owned. And as a near peer adversary in the New Cold War, much like China, why would American politicians ban TikTok but not Telegram, a social media platform where I’ve personally seen stolen credit card information shared widely in the course of my reporting?
No one knows for sure whether TikTok will get banned in the U.S., though it’s rather unique that such a move has bipartisan support in Congress. Politicians certainly don’t agree on other important issues right now like gun control or the debt ceiling. But if the U.S. bans TikTok it’s reasonable to ask about not just other apps with ties to the Chinese government.
If you want to enforce a new kind of tech nationalism, why stop at TikTok? Why not pass laws that dictate what can and can’t be done with user data, creating a more level playing field? If you want all U.S.-based data to stay within this country, pass a law stating that and recognize there will be repercussions. Not every company has the resources to maintain a presence in the U.S., and you can bet that a company like Spotify wouldn’t have succeeded along the same arc if it was required to keep all its servers in the U.S., as just one example.
It may be a losing battle to ask our legislators to have some kind of consistency in the laws they pass. But at least we can point out when they’re being inconsistent, which is more than many Chinese citizens are allowed to do, thanks to the country’s draconian censorship. And in the case of TikTok, it’s far from the only company that’s keeping a close eye on what you’re doing online.