As Trump Mulls Ban on TikTok, Boris Reportedly Set to Approve Global HQ in London

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson reacts as he hosts a Chinese New Year reception at 10 Downing Street in central London on January 24, 2020. (Photo by Ben STANSALL / AFP) (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)
BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has reportedly backed the idea of Chinese app TikTok basing its global headquarters in London, as President Donald Trump prepares to ban or force the sale of the app in America.

Amidst growing concern about the Beijing-based short-form video app, the British government risks creating another row with the United States over the issue of Chinese involvement in the United Kingdom by allowing TikTok to establish its global hub in London. The move would come after months of wrangling with the Trump administration over the issue of Huawei involvement in the British 5G network.

On Sunday, The Sun newspaper reported that Boris Johnson’s government has already approved the decision and that the government would announce the arrangement this week.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister told the BBC on Monday that the move would be a “commercial one” but added that Mr Johnson has yet to discuss the matter with President Donald Trump.

President Trump announced on Monday that he would be giving TikTok owner ByteDance the ultimatum to sell the app to Microsoft within 45 days or face a ban from operating in the United States. Microsoft confirmed that it would open acquisition talks with the company, to take over the operations in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — but did not mention the United Kingdom.

The Beijing-based company said that the decision by President Trump forced the company to rethink the location of the TikTok headquarters, which was set to be either located in California or New York. The firm said that it has yet to make a final decision, but confirmed to the BBC that London was on the shortlist of possible places.

“In light of the current situation, ByteDance has been evaluating the possibility of establishing TikTok’s headquarters outside of the U.S., to better serve our global users,” the Chinese company said in a statement.

The Conservative MP for Harborough and co-founder of the China Research Group of Tory MPs, Neil O’Brien, called for British intelligence services to investigate the company’s code before greenlighting the move.

“It would be useful for the government to use the kind of specialists in cyber-security that only it has access to, to give us a definitive view of whether the app is safe,” O’Brien said.

“[If it is] we should welcome investment by TikTok in the country. But if there are problems, as some media reports have suggested, with either political interference in its algorithms and the content that’s shown or about where the data is ending up and a lack of security — well that would raise a whole bunch of other questions.”

Although not confirmed, it is likely that the British intelligence and security agency GCHQ is already reviewing the app, as is customary after something is flagged by the United States government as a possible national security threat.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that “these Chinese software companies doing business in the United States are feeding data directly to the Chinese Communist Party, their national security apparatus”.

“[It] could be [users’] facial recognition pattern, it could be information about their residence, their phone numbers, their friends, who they’re connected to. Those are the issues that President Trump’s made clear we’re going to take care of. These are true national security issues,” Pompeo explained.

Two major concerns with TikTok are the app’s ability to track its users through geo-location data which could be shared with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as well as fears that the platform’s algorithms could push communist propaganda on unsuspecting youths in the West.

TikTok has claimed that it does not provide data to the CCP, saying that TikTok’s servers are based outside of mainland China, unlike its sister app Douyin which caters to the Chinese market. However, as a Chinese company, it is mandated by law to “support, assist, and cooperate” with communist intelligence services by sharing any data requested by the regime in Beijing.

Speaking in July, former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith called for TikTok to be banned in the United Kingdom, claiming that it represented as much of a threat as the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei.

“Tik Tok has the ability to harvest data and is considered a security risk, not just in the UK and USA but in countries as diverse as India and Japan,” Mr Duncan Smith told the Evening Standard.

“ByteDance is considered an untrusted vendor and as such similar to Huawei,” he said, adding: “We need to treat it the same way we treat Huawei and ban it.”

Follow Kurt on Twitter at @KurtZindulka


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