Microsoft wants to buy the Chinese app, and the administration needs to get out of the way.
Yes, President Trump can ban TikTok in the United States. The problem? This won’t actually stop the digital deluge from China.
In fact, in the perfect example of someone playing checkers against someone playing chess, the outcome of this face-off with the Chinese government seems destined to blow up in Mr. Trump’s face, if he doesn’t move carefully going forward.
Let’s be clear: while it sounds plausible in this clown car of a White House that Trump is motivated by revenge, I don’t think he’s trying to bring down Sarah Cooper for her eviscerating mimicry of him on TikTok. And he’s also probably not gunning for the K-pop kids who organized a TikTok prank to order tickets to his campaign rally in Tulsa and then ghosted.
And I don’t think it has much to do with TikTok’s becoming an interesting counterweight to Mr. Trump’s favored social media site, Facebook, which lets him mostly go unleashed. (It was lost on no one paying attention that Facebook’s leader, Mark Zuckerberg, attacked China and, by extension, TikTok, last week at a congressional hearing on antitrust, casting himself as the bold Western defender against the Asian villains.)
In fact, the president is directionally correct in his effort to thwart China’s ambitions to establish internet hegemony. As I wrote in a column about using a burner phone when I enjoy TikTok, Trump and other tech executives, like Mr. Zuckerberg, are right to say that China and the country’s tech companies threaten American users when it comes to security, data and, more important, influence and propaganda.
But how best to deal with that scary and real issue is a very complex thing. And over the weekend, the signals from the Trump administration were all over the place. On Friday, Mr. Trump threatened a ban. Then, he said that TikTok couldn’t be bought by Microsoft, which had been in talks with its owner, ByteDance.
On Sunday morning, administration officials got on the news shows, all with different messages. By that night, Microsoft, which had pulled back from talks to buy TikTok, said it would re-engage in a news release that read like a hostage letter. It praised President Trump effusively.
Even when he’s right, Mr. Trump often manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory — in this case a safe landing for TikTok. He could make a mess if he doesn’t tread carefully.
“The Trump administration needs to look at the next move,” said Alex Stamos, who used to be in charge of stopping foreign incursions at both Facebook and Yahoo and now is director of the Stanford Internet Observatory. “They can block economic activity by TikTok in the U.S., but we fortunately don’t have a Great Firewall in this country. If they push too hard, ByteDance can focus on providing TikTok as a side-loaded Android app and a mobile website, both of which would be impossible for Trump to block.”
Let me translate Mr. Stamos’ geekspeak: If there’s a will to make a TikTok dance video go viral, there’s a way.
And that’s why the United States should support an open internet that touts democratic values using sophisticated strategy, smart policy and large investments in research and innovation, as well as some well-placed cudgels. But it seems that Mr. Trump would, rather than governing, prefer to make loud declarations to reporters and on Twitter.
Unlike other executive orders he has issued related to tech — like his toothless effort to eliminate immunity protections under the Communications Decency Act — Mr. Trump’s arsenal here has more bite and includes stronger national security levers. He could, for example, block TikTok from app stores in the United States. Or he could bar American businesses from selling goods and services to it without a license. In this, TikTok would have little recourse other than to cease operating through its app.
Such pressure is obviously best used to force a sale, as was done with the gay dating service Grindr, to a United States company. And that’s why the Microsoft deal to acquire TikTok makes a lot of sense. With its strong tech security chops, Microsoft is one of the handful of U.S. companies with experience in managing big and complex platforms (besides the massive Windows and Office franchises, the company also owns LinkedIn, Skype and Minecraft).
While there are other American tech giants — Amazon and Apple spring to mind — that could also take on the Chinese security threat, a Microsoft-owned TikTok could also create a healthy and suspicion-free rival to Facebook in the social media space. And Microsoft would fix security issues quicker than taking TikTok public as a U.S. company.
“They should take the Microsoft deal,” Mr. Stamos noted. “It’s the best outcome for the United States, as Microsoft has one of the best security teams in tech, as it prevents a fight over the basic freedom of Americans to use the open Web.”
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Trump will get in the way again, as he is pushed and pulled by various members of his staff. If he does, it’s a tell — that the president cares little about actual smart solutions and more about sound and fury, signifying nothing.