HOLLY: Hi, NPR. This is Holly (ph) from Olympia, Wash., where I am sitting outside my local seafood shop that is so small it can only fit 3 customers at a time. But we're in the Pacific Northwest, so there is a line around the building, even on a weekday. This podcast was recorded at...
ASMA KHALID, HOST:
2:40 p.m. on Tuesday, August 4.
HOLLY: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. All right, enjoy the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
FRANCO ORDONEZ, BYLINE: So my question is, is that three people with social distancing or without social distancing?
KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.
ORDONEZ: I'm Franco Ordonez. I cover the White House.
KHALID: And today, we've got a special guest on the show. NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn is joining us from San Francisco. Hey, Bobby.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, everyone.
KHALID: And so, Bobby, we wanted your expertise on the show because we're going to talk about TikTok today and all the political controversy around this app. And we need your help because, I will admit, I myself am not a frequent TikTok user, in part because, I admit, I'm kind of paranoid about a lot of these national security concerns that we've heard that we're going to talk about later in the show. But, Franco, do you use TikTok?
ORDONEZ: You know, as kind of similar to you, I don't have it on my phone, but I am familiar with it. And I confess, I've kind of gotten sucked into the viral videos that sometimes end up on other apps.
KHALID: All right, so if you are not a big consumer of TikTok, Bobby, why don't you explain what the app is?
ALLYN: Sure. So TikTok is this video-sharing app where you can record yourself doing viral dance challenges to a Beyonce song, or you could impersonate the president. There is this woman, Sarah Cooper, who's become a viral sensation by just basically mouthing the words of the president and sharing that. And what's really distinctive about TikTok is the algorithm allows just an average Joe to take a video and have it be seen by, like, tens of millions of people overnight. The way the algorithm works is you can go from having, like, 10 followers to, like, 50,000 in a snap. So because it has that potential, it really has become this both addicting thing to watch and fun thing to use because it's like a gamble. Every time you make one...
KHALID: Because you could become a celebrity overnight.
ALLYN: ...You might become an influencer overnight. Yeah.
KHALID: Well, despite its popularity and the fact that it is used by, you know, tens of millions of people here in the United States, President Trump has recently been talking about banning the app. Now it seems instead of outright shutting it down, he seems open to the idea of an American company buying it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't mind if, whether it's Microsoft or somebody else, a big company, a secure company, a very American company buy it. It's probably easier to buy the whole thing than to buy 30% of it because I say, how do you do 30%? Who is going to get the name? The name is hot. The brand is hot.
ORDONEZ: You know, it's an interesting change, Asma. You know, he gave that deadline and threatened to ban them just this weekend. But then, you know, he turns around and says, well, maybe I'm OK with it, and maybe I'm OK with Microsoft buying it, but they've got to do it by this date, September 15. And he also explains - or he says he wants the U.S. Treasury to get a cut of the sale, to get a fee, a percentage, he says, that this wouldn't happen without him. But it's really, really unclear how that would happen. So there's a lot of questions here.
KHALID: Yeah, a lot of questions there. And, Bobby, before we really dig into the politics of all this, can you just explain what some of the security concerns are about TikTok? Because there are national security concerns there.
ALLYN: Yeah, absolutely. So TikTok is owned by this hundred-billion-dollar tech giant called ByteDance. And TikTok is ByteDance's first global sensation. And because it is a Chinese-owned company, folks in Washington, you know, in the White House, Democrats in Washington and even some private companies like Wells Fargo are very alarmed about the potential of Beijing vacuuming up biometric information, like pictures of your face and other personal information, and sending it to Beijing and then potentially giving access to that data to the Chinese Communist Party.
Now, what would they do with it? That's a big question. Some say that the Chinese government, you know, might want to build a big database of American consumers that they then could potentially use for disinformation campaigns. And there's other theories, too. But what this ultimately boils down to is whether or not you believe TikTok's telling the truth when they say, no, we're not giving any data to China. The critics say they could, so that's enough to delete it. And TikTok says we're not, so you should believe us and keep it on your phone.
KHALID: You know, regardless, Bobby, of who's speaking the truth here, I think it's worth being very clear that it's not just Republicans, it's not just the Trump administration who has these concerns, right? The DNC has advised campaign staff not to use TikTok on any of its personal devices. And then late last month, Joe Biden's team actually told staff to delete the app from any of their devices as well. And so there is this anxiety around the national security concerns from Democrats as well.
ALLYN: Yeah. And I think what the critics really point to - the critics of TikTok point to - are Chinese national laws that basically give the carte blanche over data held by Chinese companies. And what experts have pointed out to me is if, say, the Chinese authorities requested information on Americans from ByteDance, it would be done secretly. All that TikTok data would be transferred secretly. And TikTok might tell the public, we've never done it, and we never plan to do it. Now, again, that's a very cynical take, and there's no direct evidence that that is happening. But those fears - right? - the theoretical possibility of China getting their hands on this data has made a lot of people alarmed.
KHALID: So, Franco, I think the real underlying question here is whether the president has the authority to ban this app. I mean, and kind of relatedly, I mean, does he have the power to intervene in the private acquisition of a company purchasing it?
ORDONEZ: That's a bit unclear, Asma. Certainly he has the right to make life difficult for the company. There are a lot of questions about whether he can ban it. But he does have the power through the Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment. In the United States, it's this acronym called CFIUS. Bobby can probably pronounce it better than I can.
ALLYN: CFIUS (laughter).
ORDONEZ: And it has the power to investigate national security threats. You know, this agency has looked at these things before of other companies. Grindr was, you know, a company that was Chinese-owned in the United States - forced it to kind of sell off its entities and kind of break away from China. And they're doing the same thing, kind of putting that kind of pressure on TikTok now. But it's a little less clear about whether an outright ban would be allowable, would be able. It seems more like the administration could, though, put a lot of fines on it and really make life difficult for them.
ALLYN: And one thing I just want to point out, Franco, is it's hard to ban an app when more than 100 million Americans have downloaded it. It's already on the phones of 100 million people. So what would that ban even look like, right?
KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And we'll talk more about this when we get back.
And we're back. And I want to talk more about this idea that TikTok might be sold to Microsoft because this just seems like such an interesting arrangement. I would call it kind of like an arranged marriage that seems somewhat orchestrated by the president of the United States.
KHALID: He's been pretty intimately involved, it seems, in negotiating this deal, and that feels unusual to me.
ALLYN: Yeah. And so I think Microsoft, when they saw opportunity here to potentially tap into this huge user base of teens and 20-somethings, knew very quickly that if they were going to go after TikTok, they had to get the blessing of the president of the United States, even though it is, like you said, a strange and sort of unconventional thing to want when two private companies are trying to merge. But given that TikTok's become this political football in Washington, he had to do it. Otherwise, I think Microsoft feared that maybe the Trump administration would challenge the acquisition.
KHALID: You know, Bobby, is there any thought that President Trump's decision here is at all personal, that it's politically motivated? And I say that in part because, you know, we saw TikTok users claim to have pranked the president and registered for loads and loads of tickets at his rally in Tulsa in June. And then there were all these empty seats. And, you know, look; it's used by a lot of young people, and we know young people tend to be more liberal.
ALLYN: Yeah. I mean, it's hard to say for sure, but some of the most well-known and widely spread TikTok videos are lampooning the president, are criticizing White House policy. I mean, there's a lot of anti-Trump activism happening on TikTok. Is that sort of factoring into what's going on with the deliberations? I mean, I don't know. But TikTok users, at least, strongly feel that they are getting potentially kicked off the app because of their activism. TikTok has been a huge platform for teen and 20-something Black Lives Matter and other social justice activism. So it's hard to talk about TikTok without talking about that.
KHALID: Yeah. So this idea that the U.S. government would force the sale of TikTok to a U.S. company seems kind of parallel to the forced tech transfers that occur in China. And those forced tech transfers have been, you know, huge points of criticism for the U.S. government, that China hasn't been playing fair when it comes to U.S. tech companies operating in China. And this seems to kind of parallel the exact point that the U.S. government has been criticizing.
ORDONEZ: Yeah. I mean, that's a big part of the tariff wars with the Chinese communist government. You know, and some would argue that this is kind of the flip side of what the United States and other countries have been accusing the Chinese of doing with their intellectual property. Interestingly, Chinese state media now is accusing the United States of going rogue and calling the potential sale of TikTok to Microsoft as a theft. You know, so it's very interesting to see kind of it going on, you know, both sides. And it was a big part - as I mentioned, you know, the tariff war, the trade war, so, you know, both sides are kind of accusing each other of similar things now.
KHALID: You know, so this story of TikTok is not really an isolated incident. It seems like just the latest chapter in a long-running saga with China over tech. And you all might recall there was this very public spat with the Chinese company Huawei. And, you know, we've seen ongoing tension in trade talks with China. And so, I guess, I'm still, like, left here wondering, what is the end goal? Is every Chinese tech company arguably considered a national security threat?
ORDONEZ: I mean, I think that's certainly to be determined. I mean, there's no Chinese company that, you know, that would be - have BFF status with the Trump administration. I think that's certainly clear. Huawei - the concerns with Huawei and the work that they are doing with allies on 5G and building their infrastructure continues to be a major concern of this administration. So it's like you said; it's like another chapter of this ongoing battle between the two governments. In some ways, it's a bit surprising that, you know, the United States is going after this app that, in large part, is about dancing and about jokes and comedy. But it's also not surprising in that, you know, the administration has made very clear that it is very worried about the Chinese and the Chinese communist government having some type of technology backdoors to get personal information and as well as National Security Administration from the United States.
ALLYN: Yeah. And, Franco, I would only add to that, that if TikTok is not going to be a successful app in the U.S., then what Chinese app will ever be, OK? This is an app that's mostly teenagers dancing and telling jokes to their friends. It's pretty light material, right? Second point is, the app has bent over backwards to try to mollify the White House. They hired the CEO Kevin Mayer from Disney to be the U.S.-based CEO of TikTok. They are opening up the source code of their algorithm for regulators and experts to analyze. They have been doing quite a bit to try to make the Trump administration see them as a transparent and accountable company. And even still, even, you know, in spite of everything that they've done to try to warm up to the White House, they're getting the boot. So I think it's - there's a real lesson to be learned there. If you're a Chinese tech investor and you're hoping to have an app that would be successful in the U.S., it's going to be a challenging road ahead.
KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for today. Bobby, thanks so much.
ALLYN: Thanks, Asma.
KHALID: And you can continue the conversation over in our Facebook group. Just head to n.pr/politicsgroup to request to join. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.
ORDONEZ: And I'm Franco Ordonez. I cover the White House.
KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.