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Why Trump’s Conflict of Interest Over a TikTok Sale Matters 

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Why Trump’s Conflict of Interest Over a TikTok Sale Matters 

Trump’s sudden opposition to a potential TikTok ban deserves closer scrutiny.

Why Trump’s Conflict of Interest Over a TikTok Sale Matters 
Credit: Depositphotos

In response to the U.S. House bill to force a sale of TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media platform, Donald Trump said, in an interview, “Without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger, and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people.” In his latest comments, Trump reversed his position from 2020, when, as president, he tried to ban TikTok by signing an executive order to prohibit any transactions between U.S. entities and ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company. 

In Trump’s typically rich and colorful vocabulary, he said, “There’s a lot of good and there’s a lot of bad” with TikTok’s security, but, he insisted, “Facebook has been very bad for our country, especially when it comes to elections.” 

Media reports in the United States about Trump’s comments focused mostly on how Republican lawmakers might be influenced by their party’s de facto leader and leading presidential candidate. Fortunately, they were not, at least, not in the House. The media and commentators, however, missed out on one most obvious issue: Donald Trump’s conflict of interest. 

First, Trump owns the majority of Truth Social, with a current value of nearly $4 billion, although that is minuscule by comparison with its competitors TikTok and Meta, the parent of Facebook. Truth Social was started in 2022. In 2020, when Trump issued his presidential executive order to ban TikTok, he was not competing with these two companies. Now, he is, and his position has curiously been reversed. 

Trump appears to be a very active owner of his social media company. It was even reported that as recently as last summer, Trump unsuccessfully pitched to sell Truth Social to Elon Musk, as reported by the Washington Post. On the other hand, Trump was banned by Facebook on January 7, 2021, after the Capitol riots and alleged insurrections, and the ban was not lifted until two years later. That may explain why he would consider Facebook “very bad” – to him. It’s personal.

There are also reports of Trump’s close connections to conservative mega-donor Jeff Yass, whose firm holds a $20 billion plus stake in ByteDance. That led the top Democrat on Congress’s China committee to proclaim that Trump is “increasingly making important policy decisions based on his own economic benefit, including in the TikTok case,” leading to worries that Trump’s China policy is “for sale.”

Imagine if the same kind of conflict of interest involving the leader or leading candidates in any other democratic nations – say, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, or the opposition Labor Party. What kind of scandal would explode? 

What if U.S. President Joe Biden, or another member of his family, or another U.S. politician showed the same curious 180 amid financial stakes in the issue? It seems that only Donald Trump can get away with such obvious conflicts of interest – and more than that, almost nobody even seems to think that it’s a problem. 

But that is not to say that Trump’s opposition to the bill against TikTok – which overwhelmingly passed in the House even after Trump’s objection – is not shared by others. Besides the large number of TikTok influencers and users, who inundated lawmakers with requests to oppose the “ban,” first and foremost among the objectors is the Chinese government. In addition, a long list of free internet proponents have also expressed their opposition. 

Beijing’s opposition to the forced sale of TikTok in the United States is unsurprising, of course, but by categorizing the U.S. action as “an act of bullying, it ironically ignores that practically all U.S. internet platforms are banned outright in China by the Great Firewall. Indeed, even TikTok itself is banned in China, where ByteDance provides a domestic version, Douyin, that faithfully adheres to Chinese censorship. 

The liberal advocates for internet freedom who also share Trump’s position against the bill have different reasons for objecting. The Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that the bill is “unconstitutional” and “misguided,” and instead of singling out TikTok, comprehensive data privacy protection legislation is a better idea. 

But the fact is that a comprehensive data privacy protection regime and regulatory actions on a problematic platform such as TikTok are not mutually exclusive. Why not strive for both? 

Clearly the U.S. Congress has failed for years, even decades, to pass any comprehensive data privacy protection laws. If Congress simply cannot get its act together to pass comprehensive data protection laws, should the country just do nothing at all? 

While TikTok and the Chinese government deny any data privacy issues, such allegations are hardly unproven. The fact is that the company has admitted to governments in Australia, Europe, and the United Kingdom that it collects excessive data on its users and some of this data can be accessed by ByteDance employees in China. Data and security laws in China in fact mandate that Chinese companies must turn over data to the Chinese government upon requests, regardless of the location where the data was gathered. There is an urgent need to act. 

In fact, Senator Mark Warner, a long-time advocate for tech regulations and data privacy law, said he believed that this current House bill could be a positive “experiment” that might just create the bipartisan momentum needed for more tech regulations to follow. 

In any case, even though Biden has committed to sign the bill if it makes it to his desk, passing it in the Senate is still an uphill battle. While a number of potential buyers have surfaced, TikTok clearly does not want a separation from its current parent. Most importantly, the Chinese government is extremely unlikely to approve any such forced sale. Simply put, why give up its control over a platform used and addicted to by so many outside of China, and make life easier for the U.S. government and Americans?

However, if the bill does get signed it into law, at least the ball will start rolling, and be placed right on TikTok’s and the Chinese government’s court. And, optimistically, one may only hope that more useful legislative actions and regulations can follow. If not, it’s just TikTok we risk losing. If a generation of users can apparently unfriend Facebook, another generation can move on from TikTok too, sooner than we know it. 

On the other hand, if, time and time again, democratic governments cannot find anything to do about TikTok, and Americans choose to continue to overlook Trump’s conflict of interest, we may be witnessing a trend of policy interference by foreign adversaries becoming the norm – another episode in Trump’s undoing of American democracy.