Trump uses TikTok and WeChat to challenge China. Welcome to a new conflict: The app wars.

Mobile apps are the next superpower battleground, and information about users is the latest commodity that everyone wants to control.
Image: Repeating TikTok and WeChat logos.
The U.S. and China see mobile apps and the information they contain as a key toehold in each other’s power structures.NBC News

The recent announcement that the Trump administration was planning to ban two extremely popular Chinese-made apps, TikTok and WeChat, were the first volleys in a new kind of conflict between superpowers. In essence, we are seeing the beginning of a revamped “Great Game,” a term that was originally coined in the 19th century but expanded in the 1990s to include superpower rivalries over commodity-rich land in Central Asia. Apps are the next battleground, and information about users is the latest commodity that everyone wants to control.

Beyond the actual data, the Trump administration could well be worried that social networking algorithms could be used to try to sway public opinion on important political issues.

When direct military conflicts between superpowers become too deadly, the rivalries typically move into other arenas — political or economic. With China ascending to superpower status both economically and militarily, tensions are on the rise. The Trump administration is already in the middle of a trade war with China with both sides having banned billions of dollars of physical goods. Now the newest front has opened, and it’s focused on the tools of the next generation.

While the U.S. has always tried to ban the spread of certain technologies that could affect national security (nuclear technology and secure encryption are two examples), this is the first time it’s tried to ban social networking apps extremely popular with young people, using a national security argument to boot. At the same time, restrictive governments such as China and North Korea have long tried to limit access to the “open internet” and frequently ban websites that might spread what they consider dangerous ideas to their citizenry.

While there could well be some domestic political considerations at play, the Trump administration sought to bar two massive social apps built by Chinese companies ostensibly in order to prevent data from over a hundred million Americans being available to the Chinese government and, by extension, to the Chinese military complex. The mechanism to enforce the ban was to threaten to remove them from the Apple and the Google app stores, highlighting just how important app stores have become.

In examining Trump’s executive order, the issue seems to be more about commerce, privacy and data breach than national security. But the bottom line is the same: The U.S. and China see mobile apps and the information they contain as a key toehold in each other’s power structures and want to exert control over these apps to further their own battle for supremacy.

And beyond the actual data, the Trump administration could well be worried that social networking algorithms could be used to try to sway public opinion on important political issues, just as Facebook has been accused of influencing election results.

With more than 100 million users in the U.S. alone, TikTok has become the new “it girl” when it comes to social networking for the younger generation. Using the TikTok app, users create, share and consume very short, catchy videos. WeChat, which is even bigger than TikTok globally, has a billion monthly active users, mostly in China, where it serves as a general replacement for voicemail, messenger, group chats and email.

Some speculate that TikTok first entered the crosshairs of the Trump administration after a large number of youngsters apparently used it to trick the Trump campaign into thinking its rally in Tulsa in June was oversold, resulting in an unfilled stadium. Whether this was the original impetus or not, Trump announced shortly thereafter that because TikTok is subject to Chinese government oversight, the data it houses on Chinese servers about American users could pose an unacceptable security risk. WeChat seems to have been added to the administration’s target list later, perhaps in part to show that this ban wasn’t a politically oriented move against just one company.

Trump indicated that the problem could be solved if the data and operations of TikTok were not automatically available to the Chinese government. So the announcement of the intended ban earlier this summer led to a scramble by the company behind TikTok, ByteDance, and by U.S. tech giants to see if they could capture TikTok’s huge audience.

After Microsoft made an unsuccessful bid to buy the U.S. assets of TikTok, just hours before the ban was to take effect this weekend, Oracle and Walmart reached a tentative deal to invest in a new U.S. company that would take over TikTok’s operations domestically.

The announcement of the deal was enough for the Trump administration to stop the removal of TikTok from U.S. app stores — for now. It is still not entirely clear that the deal will get done and that TikTok won’t be banned. China signaled its displeasure with the move Tuesday, throwing the deal into question.

If that wasn’t enough, when announcing his approval of the deal between TikTok and Oracle and Walmart this weekend, Trump also said that TikTok would be putting $5 billion toward his domestic youth “education” program. But TikTok then countered that it wasn’t aware of any such commitment.

Meanwhile, Sunday morning, as WeChat was to be removed from the Google and the Apple app stores as well, a federal judge ordered a temporary halt to the ban as part of a lawsuit that alleges that the Department of Commerce is violating users’ First Amendment rights.

Whatever the outcome of these specific skirmishes, the app wars are just beginning.

Indeed, the U.S. isn’t the only economic superpower to ban Chinese apps, or even TikTok. In June, India, caught in a regional rivalry with China, banned 59 apps, the most prominent of which was TikTok, citing reasons similar to that of the Trump administration. The European Union, which has been at the forefront of championing users’ privacy and data security, hasn’t banned TikTok but has raised concerns over its data policies.

It’s only going to get worse, with tit-for-tat reprisals involving the superpowers using app stores as the new chessboard and apps as the individual pieces.

Where will this lead? In response to the ban, Instagram’s CEO complained that the prohibition imposed by the U.S. would allow other countries to remove apps by American companies for similar reasons. Indeed, my prediction is that it’s only going to get worse, with tit-for-tat reprisals involving the superpowers using app stores as the new chessboard and apps as the individual pieces. This will result in an increasing number of restrictions users in a given country see.

Someday, historians may be writing about 2020 as the beginning of the app wars, just as we refer back to the Cold War of the 20th century or the “Great Game” of the 19th century. In the meantime, I’ll be eagerly monitoring the latest developments on my favorite social networking app. Unless, of course, it gets banned.