The proxy conflict between China and the United States over the shape of the internet continues, even in the midst of a pandemic. Two months after President Trump banned U.S. tech companies from working with the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, the administration is considering a ban on TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing app that has as many as 80 million active American users every month. On the most recent episode of the New York podcast Pivot, co-hosts Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway try to to figure out what a ban action could look like — and if the White House could even pull it off.
Kara Swisher: Bad news for quarantined moms of Gen-Z kids: The United States is weighing a ban of TikTok. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on Fox News to tell Laura Ingraham — what a sentence — that the U.S. is very seriously looking at the ban of the app and warn that people should only download it if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. President Trump confirmed that his administration was considering the ban — but I don’t think he can do such a thing. What do you think is going to happen to this super-popular platform?
Scott Galloway: I think it comes down to whether or not there’s evidence that it’s a security threat, and whether the information is being used in covert intelligence. Because the relationship between Chinese companies and the ruling party there is pretty tight.
The problem is: When the secretary of State used to come out and say, “This is a national security risk,” they would show up with receipts and data and you would believe them. And now you just don’t know. And it might be a security threat. These actions might be warranted, or it might be another xenophobic decision that hurts our economy and gives us no leg to stand on when we call for these markets to buy our products.
So what’s next? The Chinese play the long game. They’re going to do something, probably against an American company — my guess would be Apple. And they’re going to say, “Look, if you want to play this game, we can play this game.” But at this point, I’m reserving judgment because I don’t know what the evidence is that they’re in fact a national security threat.
Kara Swisher: What’s interesting is what’s happening in India, where the Modi government outright banned TikTok. Now, India has much more control in this sphere than the White House does.
I’d love to talk to TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer about their strategy here, but they certainly are going to slap back. And this would certainly be an opportunity for Instagram and Snapchat to move into their space.
Scott Galloway: Do you like TikTok?
Kara Swisher: I actually use a burner phone to use it. Let me just say it’s fantastic. The algorithm, it really is good. You get drawn in there. There’s a lot of wonderful, creative stuff people are doing with it, but there’s another side. The question is, how well will they control, say, anti-vaxx content, which is another complex issue.
But this is a typical Trump administration action, this blanket attempt at a ban that doesn’t leave room for any nuance. This is not the way to do it — the proposed course right now misses the opportunity to do something nuanced and something important.
Scott Galloway: Well, TikTok and Huawei have become the poster children for who we go after. At least in the cybersecurity community, supposedly the threat that each represents to national security they say at this point is hypothetical. But at the same time, China figured out a way to kick out Facebook and Google.
Pivot is produced by Rebecca Sananes. Erica Anderson is the executive producer.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.