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Around the campfire: Government Policy to State Authoritarianism, the thin end of the wedge?

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I’m not your typical TikTok user. It’s not aimed at me. But I wanted to watch my kids do their stuff on TikTok. After I had watched I just thought – surely they could do a better job of Dad-mockery than that…

TikTok is aimed at young, tech-savvy people up to the age of roughly 24. I am, ahem, somewhat beyond that demographic. But I am awed by the phenomenon.

TikTok in less than two years has become a monster social media brand, for which its owner, the Chinese company ByteDance, paid around $1 billion. TikTok’s success is based on a combination of things – ease of access, fun, youth-appeal, silliness, dispensability…it’s kind of pot noodles for the mind.

And all wrapped into a wonderful algorithm that uses artificial intelligence to enable those who have the app to create, edit, and show the world their videos, with a 15 second maximum.

No wonder it there have been more than two billion downloads around the world. TikTok’s creator has a net worth of more than $6 billion. TikTok has thrived as teens everywhere have had time on their hands during lockdowns. But TikTok has become the citadel in a new Cold War.

In June, Chinese and Indian troops clashed on the border at Galwan Valley. India banned TikTok as part of its retaliation. Relations between China and the USA are dismal. In Beijing and Washington D.C. two peacocks are bristling in a rage against each other. TikTok has been in hot water with the American authorities before, over its collection of children’s personal data. President Donald Trump said last week he was going to ban TikTok on “national security” grounds – a none-too-disguised suggestion that the personal information of around 100 million Americans could be obtained by Beijing. Microsoft quickly said wants to buy TikTok’s US operations.

Re-enter President Trump. He now says the US Treasury should get a “very large percentage” of whatever he allows Microsoft (or whoever) to pay for TikTok’s US business. He’s also said any US suitor for the company has until 15 September to strike the deal or he will ban TikTok for American users. This is a fast-moving story. In the long-term though it sends very a worrying signal – it indicates that the US President thinks the US state has the right to extort money from private industry.

Threatening to ban a private enterprise? Telling private companies they can only buy businesses if they give a bit of the sale price to the government? Bending the private sector to the whims of government policy?

This is not about defending personal liberties, no matter what the White House bluster is. This is creeping state authoritarianism. It’s the thin end of a long wedge, the conclusion of which is the state ordering our lives the way it sees fit. Let’s dance while we can.

Till next week

Jason

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