Why Barack Obama would be taking down TikTok, too

August 21, 2020, 1:54 PM UTC

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In an alternate universe where Barack Obama was President, we would still be talking about banning TikTok—or at least freeing it from Chinese owner ByteDance’s control. One of the minor tragedies of the current President is that even when he faces problems that needs facing, his approach is so confused and, at times, unhinged that it overshadows the real issues.

Exhibit A: Trump didn’t seem to care a whit about TikTok until after the video service started making headlines for helping spread the word about an anti-Trump prank (when thousands of teens claimed they falsely reserved tickets for the president’s Tulsa rally). That happened in late June and by early July, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and then Trump himself were suddenly all over the dangers of TikTok.

But set aside the self-centered attention span and dig a little deeper. Many politicians in Washington from both parties have been sounding the alarm about Chinese control of U.S. mobile apps and services in general, and TikTok in particular, for several years. The very mechanism that Trump is now using to reverse ByteDance’s 2018 acquisition of the app, a national security review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, got a huge upgrade from Congress not long ago to better address this very sort of situation.

And let’s be clear, this very sort of situation needs addressing. As Columbia law professor and my favorite net neutrality advocate Tim Wu wrote in an op-ed this week, China’s use of the Internet to censor and spread propaganda while banning foreign apps and services requires democratic countries to move against Chinese internet offerings now. “The asymmetry is unfair and ought no longer be tolerated,” Wu wrote.

Unfortunately, based on Trump’s rhetoric, it sounds like the government’s forced sale of TikTok is one of those questionably legal moves like messing with the census or opening the country’s entire coastline to oil drilling. That’s not the case, as ByteDance will find out in court if they challenge the process. Presidents have been blocking and undoing mergers for years through the long-established and carefully proscribed CFIUS process. President G.W. Bush undid the completed sale of an aircraft parts maker to a Chinese company in 1990. Obama banned the sale of a semiconductor firm to a Chinese-owned company and blocked the sale of a wind farm near a Navy base to Chinese investors. The Trump administration earlier, without comment from the president, forced Beijing Kunlun Tech to sell dating app Grindr, although it got more than 90 days. And TikTok has been under investigation by CFIUS without any involvement from Trump since at least November 2019.

Still, the President has repeatedly said that the U.S. government should also get a big portion of the proceeds of any sale, because “we’re making it possible for this deal to happen.” There’s no legal basis for such a demand. And this week, Trump appeared to back Oracle, run by one of his political supporters, as the best buyer of TikTok even though there’s no plausible reason for the enterprise database giant to own an app teenagers use to watch silly videos.

The problem of China’s one-sided Internet policies and even scarier efforts requires a serious, unified global response. Maybe the next inhabitant of the White House will be more up to the task.

Aaron Pressman




Duck, duck, goose. Ride sharing companies avoided their day of reckoning in California. A state appeals court ruled Thursday that the law forcing Uber and Lyft to recognize their drivers as employees cannot take effect while the legal challenge is ongoing. The companies said they'd have had to shutdown in the state if the deadline took effect. In other court matters, Uber's former security chief Joseph Sullivan was charged with obstruction of justice and failing to report a felony for covering up a 2016 data breach at the company. A spokesman for Sullivan denied the charges and said the former chief is the one who identified the breach.

First chest starter pack. The Apple versus Epic battle just keeps getting more and more interesting. On Thursday, a major news publishing group that includes the New York Times and Wall Street Journal wrote to Apple asking how they could get the same deal as Amazon and pay only 15% commissions on their subscription sales on the iPhone. And Epic announced a new tournament called the the #FreeFortnite Cup with promotions and prizes related to its campaign against Apple. The top 20,000 players get a "Free Fortnite" baseball hat and some winners will get non-Apple laptops, phones, and other gear.

M dot Zuck and J dot Sim. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified at the Federal Trade Commission, where chairman Joseph Simons is overseeing an antitrust investigation of the social network. The remote testimony was under oath, and staff from the offices of state attorneys general also probing Facebook were allowed to listen in.

The little one stops to pick up sticks. In the IPO market, we're looking at a possible record breaker, though not on a U.S. exchange. Jack Ma's online payments giant Ant Group may raise $30 billion in a debut on exchanges in Hong Kong and Shanghai. That would beat the $22 billion raised by Ma's 2014 Alibaba IPO, which included a U.S. listing on the New York Stock Exchange. I wonder if something weird is going on in U.S.-China relations?

It’s not helpful but it’s fun to think about. After lower courts ruled that President Trump cannot block critics on Twitter, the administration is appealing to the Supreme Court. "The President uses his account to speak to the public, not to give members of the public a forum to speak to him and among themselves," White House lawyers argued in a petition to SCOTUS to take the case. "Government officials can't suppress speech simply because they disagree with its message," responded Jameel Jaffer, executive director of The Knight First Amendment Institute, which sued to stop the blocking.

Triple yikes. A bug in the latest version of Adobe's Lightroom app for iPhones and iPads deleted some users photos–forever. Adobe acknowledged the problem and said they “sincerely apologize” because the lost images are “not recoverable." Did I mention triple yikes!


Colleges and universities are struggling to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and some have already closed. But in future years, the challenge to expensive, degree-granting institutions may come from Silicon Valley. Google has set up a new online professional certification program and senior vp Kent Walker says the company "will now treat these new career certificates as the equivalent of a four-year degree for related roles." Consultant Justin Bariso digs into the implications at Inc.

Although traditional degrees are still deemed necessary in fields like law or medicine, more and more employers have signaled that they no longer view them as a must-have--Apple, IBM, and Google, just to name a few.

So, if you're an employer or hiring manager, ask yourself:

Is it time to rewrite our own job descriptions, to eliminate the requirement of a four-year degree?
Can we take advantage of educational programs like those offered by Google and other online platforms?
Or, better yet, do we have the resources to design our own online training, to help increase our pool of qualified candidates and simultaneously provide an additional source of revenue for our business?

Remember: Nowadays, it's all about skills. Not degrees.


A few long reads I came across this week:

Inside NSO, Israel’s billion-dollar spyware giant (MIT Technology Review)
The world’s most notorious surveillance company says it wants to clean up its act. Go on; we’re listening.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper is More Than the Company’s Response to SpaceX (IEEE Spectrum)
Amazon Web Services and Blue Origin could mean the satellite constellation becomes part of a larger ecosystem.

A math problem stumped experts for 50 years. This grad student from Maine solved it in days (Boston Globe Magazine)
“That’s ridiculous,” Lisa Piccirillo thought when she first learned about the Conway knot problem. “We should be able to do that.”

Why is this interesting? - The Punk Edition (WITI)
My story today is about punk, and how it prepared me for Down syndrome.


An F-16 pilot took on A.I. in a dogfight. Here’s who won By Aaron Pressman

COVID-19 has spurred rapid transformation in health care. Let’s make sure it stays that way By Gianrico Farrugia

Investors ride the Big Tech rally even as COVID cases and unemployment spike By Bernhard Warner

Are these big discounts enough to get you back into a movie theater? By David Z. Morris

A guide to giving gifts for postponed and shrunken weddings By Brooke Henderson

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


On my family staycation, we rewatched all three seasons of Netflix's great series Stranger Things. When season 4 comes out is an open question given the pandemic-induced shutdown of Hollywood productions. But good news, Hawkins fans: creators Ross Duffer and Matt Duffer tell the Hollywood Reporter that the story will go on even longer. "Season four won't be the end," Ross says. "We know what the end is, and we know when it is." Lots more interesting tibits in the interview. Have a great weekend and go easy on the Eggo waffles.

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