When I read that President Trump’s recent decision to ban TikTok from the U.S. market gave the popular Chinese social media app’s services one chance to survive intact – a purchase of its U.S. business by an American-owned company (most likely, it seems, Microsoft) – my “Uh oh” antennae started buzzing. I knew that there’s no reason for confidence that a U.S.-owned tech multinational would adequately safeguard American national security and individual privacy interests versus the kinds of threats that have already been posed by TikTok’s obligations to an increasingly hostile Chinese government, much less uphold values in the freedom of expression family.
I knew this because research for a 2013 article I published on Bloomberg.com revealed that Microsoft was one of the many big U.S. tech companies whose drive for access to China’s potentially huge customer base involved extensive activities aimed at strengthening the technological prowess that has helped make the People’s Republic such a danger to America as well as the world at large.
As I wrote – based on the companies’ own financial reports – these efforts have included the establishment of state-of-the-art factories and laboratories, along with training programs that have taught literally hundreds of thousands of Chinese students state-of-the-art tech skills not only at facilities run by these businesses, but through partnerships with Chinese universities.
Worse, as made clear by a Financial Times report last week Microsoft, whose operations in China “have included collaborations with researchers at China’s military-controlled National University of Defense Technology,” has done nothing important since this piece came out to scale back such cooperation with China’s dictatorial regime.
For example, in 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping “visited Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington, where he praised the company for “driving forward the development of China’s ICT [information and communications technology] industry”. Moreover, last month, “Microsoft was the sole US company invited to a televised entrepreneurs’ summit with Mr Xi.”
Perhaps most troubling, the Financial Times reported that “The company’s management of its research staff is very light.” According to a former executive at Microsoft China, limiting research collaborations is “a really tough question — research is a very liberal environment in itself. People might question [research collaborations] but from the point of view of our researchers, they want to work with the best partners they can find in their field.”
And what did Microsoft get for itself and its shareholders for all this assistance? Almost nothing. Even though its Windows operating system enjoys an estimated 90 percent market share, piracy of its products is so widespread that China accounts for less than two percent of its global revenues, according to its president. So I’m glad I don’t have to make the case that Microsoft can be relied on vigilantly to resist Beijing’s pressures to remain privy to important U.S. data – by hook or by crook.
Indeed, another recent Financial Times article claimed that Microsoft is mulling a takeover agreement that would give it “one year to separate TikTok from its Chinese parent and address US government concerns over the security of the data generated by the app.” Yet even if Microsoft’s U.S.-based executives do their darnest to shut the Chinese government out, that could leave plenty of time for TikTok’s Chinese employees to work with the regime to create new or keep open existing backdoors to Beijing. Alternatively, once the deal is done, Microsoft might simply manage ongoing cybersecurity issues as “lightly” as the U.S. parent has managed its research team-ups with China’s regime.
Moreover, requiring Microsoft to conclude the separation much sooner would still leave the company – which would still be anxious for more China business – free to wind up emulating TikTok’s practice of taking down content deemed offensive by China. Such subjects include praise for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1990, or the Tibetan independence movement. And Microsoft certainly wouldn’t be the first U.S. tech company to regulate speech with political aims in mind.
For all I know, effective safeguards against all these contingencies might be developed. But at very best, preventing China from continuing to exploit TikTok – and other tech products and services it’s currently offering to U.S. customers or could offer – will be a never-ending struggle. Best to remove as many uncertainties as possible, and make defense as easy as possible, by simply kicking TikTok and other Chinese products like it out, and keeping them out.