Recently the beloved video sharing service, TikTok, has become a political football for relations between China & the United States. The United States has accused the makers of TikTok of partnering with the Chinese government to use the application to spy on Americans. China has accused the US government of sour grapes from an innovation perspective due to the widespread global popularity of this mobile application.
Within the past several weeks, President Trump has made it clear that if TikTok doesn’t divest of its US based operations then the application will be banned for American consumers.
While this might seem like much ado about nothing, the reality is that if this issue isn’t resolved favorably for both China & the United States; there could be far reaching ramifications for future technologies developed both locally and globally.
Technology needs to scale globally
One of the major benefits of technology is that once you have product-market fit, there is an opportunity to scale globally. Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon are all trillion dollar technology companies that were founded in the United States.
Even though this companies were founded in the United States, they have global reach. Customers throughout the globe value the solutions these companies have developed. Due to the inherent scale of technology, the cost benefits to servicing an increased number of consumers continues to grow as they capture more and more market share.
With these companies as the leaders in their respective spaces, one can expect continued growth and market penetration.
China is of course interested in replicating this performance for companies that are started and developed there. TikTok has been one of the shining examples of an application that has reached product-market fit and is rapidly scaling globally.
From a business perspective, this makes these issues especially challenging for this company.
Consumer Tech Should be apolitical
Although it can be difficult to ignore the geopolitical dynamics of where companies are founded and where there ultimate customer bases reach, the reality is that especially for consumer tech there is an expectation that their ability to do business should be apolitical.
Facebook has learned this lesson the hard way with recent decisions that they have made about what content they will restrict and what they will not. Although it has not yet caused a financial hit because of their diverse customer base, the underlying concern is that there is a responsibility to control what appears on the platform even if it is not politically expedient especially if it is clear that what is being said is untrue.
TikTok is an especially interesting example of consumer technology since most of the videos are made by tweens and teens that are simply looking to get likes, shares and comments. In essence, the content being shared is even more innocuous that what is typically shared on Facebook.
However, TikTok is making the point that if they were a US based company there would not be similar issues. Their argument is that if there is a concern about data sharing, let us know what should be restricted for US consumers in the same way that China places restrictions on what can be searched on Google.
While there are those who feel like limits is akin to censorship, the reality is that governments have a right to sovereignty within their countries.
Technology restrictions limit future innovations
As students around the world are learning to code and build with technology, there is a concern that the potential of their future innovation will be limited by where they choose to start their company.
From a global invention and innovation perspective, this is extremely troubling. The potential of the next generation regardless of where they choose to call home is unlimited. But, if those who have ideas are concerned to build and launch them because of what is happening to TikTok, that’s a big issue.
When we think about how hard it is to not only found a new company but also develop a product or service that is valued by customers, we should be thinking about how we can create the right global ecosystem for this to happen repeatedly.
The decision to force TikTok to sell their US operations to another company or to ban their application all together makes that very difficult. At this point it is tough to know what the outcome of these efforts regarding TikTok will result in. But, as technologists and those who would like to encourage future innovations, we should be very concerned at the direction this is heading.
Over the next several weeks, the TikTok issue will be resolved in one way or the other. Let’s hope that the outcome does not limit the future potential for those who have the creativity and capability to build new products and services feeling restricted.