The Sale of Tik Tok in the USA is a Foretaste of the ‘Splinternet’, Says Cyber Expert

By: Clare Bruce

To the average Aussie parent, Tik Tok may be just another mystifying social media app, full of strange videos that distract the teens from their homework.

But to US president Donald Trump, it’s a threat to the very security of the Western World—so he’s ordered the Chinese company that owns it, to sell the US portion of its operation to an American company (probably Microsoft).

Unfortunately for mums and dads, the forced sale won’t get your kids doing their homework any sooner; but it may well affect the way their homework is done sometime in the future.

Because, if the experts are right, this division of ownership could signal the beginning of one very public, very painful ‘breakup’: the breaking up of the internet.

International Security Concerns

In an interview, cyber security expert Professor Matt Warren from Melbourne’s RMIT explained the controversy surrounding the social media platform.

He said Trump’s decision to shut Tik Tok’s Chinese owners out of America is due to security concerns. So serious are those concerns, that the president has vowed to ban the app if the sale isn’t completed by mid September. Australia shares these security concerns, too.

“When [Tik Tok] is installed, what it does is collect the user’s entire contact list,” Professor Warren explained. “It also collects location data. And there’s also information from other apps such as Facebook, if it’s installed on that phone.

“So this the concern that governments have: it isn’t the entertainment aspect, it’s all this background information that’s being collected, really without people knowing about it, and being shared overseas.”

“At the moment there’s a Senate Committee [in Australia] looking at the impact of social media… and Tik Tok is being looked at.”

Tik Tok’s owners – a Chinese company called Bytedance – insist that the data of its 800 million active users is safe. But it’s the Chinese government the company answers to, that leaders like Donald Trump don’t trust.

“In China there’s something called the ‘National Intelligence Law of 2017’, that compels every organisation and individual to assist governments in terms of sharing information that they have, whether its physical information or electronic information,” said Prof Warren.

“And this is a concern that the US government has; also the Australian government. At the moment there’s a Senate Committee [in Australia] looking at the impact of social media and influence in Australia, and Tik Tok is also being looked at by that committee.”

The Internet is Changing

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If divisions of global tech applications like Tik Tok become commonplace, it could lead to fundamental changes to the internet as we know it. Futurists are now using the term ‘Splinternet’.

“There’s some talk of Splinternet, which is literally – in the future – what you will have is the internet broken into regions,” Prof Warren said. “So there’d be a Chinese internet, a Russian internet, a Turkish internet, a Western internet.

“There’s some key questions about where does this actually leave the future of the internet… [Is it] going to be this open network where people can freely share information? [Or will we] just have a number of regional networks?

“We’re starting to see some major changes in the internet and in the future we’re going to see even more.”

“It means [if you’re] using Tik Tok in Australia you’d be using that new Microsoft version… not the Chinese Bytedance version.”

The division of Tik Tok sale will not only affect the app’s 80 million users in the USA, but also its users in Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

“It means [if you’re] using Tik Tok in Australia you’d be using that new Microsoft version… not the Chinese Bytedance version.”

For Tik Tok, it’s a big blow: 10 percent of their users are in the USA. But it’s not the first time it’s happened.

“The US is the second country to do this.” Prof Warren said. “The Indian government has already banned Tik Tok, and [that represents] 120 million users.”

The De-Globalisation of Technology

Already the internet is seeing more division of its global members, through the imposition of sales taxes.

“It was something that they’ve tried to implement when the internet became popular in 2000, and they said it’s just too complex to implement a sales tax for the internet,” Prof Warren said.

“But now governments have worked out a way they can charge individual citizens from their country using a services tax. So you have the impact on future trade. You may not have access to certain apps in the future because it’s not cost effective.”

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

About the Author: Clare is a digital journalist for the Broadcast Industry.

Feature image: Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash.

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