photo of a smart phone desktop with the TikTok social media app icon displayed

Why Trump Can’t Ban TikTok And What He Could Do Instead

 

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Why Trump Can’t Ban TikTok And What He Could Do Instead

Not long after his epic Tulsa tantrum, and the walk of shame which followed impeached President Trump began talking about taking on TikTok.  Of course, his umbrage is because TikTok users ordered up a few hundred thousand tickets to what AOC dubbed his White supremacist open mic in Tulsa.

Trump blamed the TikTok ticket takers after the arena where he held his comeback rally was almost empty.  Given his widely reported moodiness, nobody has dared point out that since there was no limit on the number of tickets, his loving fans could easily still have still snatched the nineteen thousand or so that would have filled the arena.  But they didn’t.  And, now the fault finder in chief needs someone to blame.

photo of a TikTok company booth at an app industry trade show

Enter Tik Tok

So what is Tik Tok?  The web site for the company says that  TikTok is the leading destination for short-form mobile video.

Elsewhere, Tik Tok has been compared to Vine which introduced the short-form video format before being shelved by Twitter. TikTok has also been called the Instagram of video. Where Instagram makes it simple to apply filters and effects to photos, TikTok makes shooting, editing, adding effects to, and uploading video incredibly simple.

The short videos, called TikToks, can be no longer than 15 seconds. So, a little longer than Trump’s attention span.

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TikTok is hugely popular and very engaging. I downloaded the app for this article and I gotta say it is pretty addictive too. The platform has over 800 million users in 155 countries 41 percent of whom are between 16 and 24. The company claims a billion videos are viewed per day on average. 

While these numbers are small compared to Facebook which brags that more than 8 billion videos are viewed per day,  Consider that TikTok a newcomer, and has grown 5.5 times in 18 months.

The Tulsa Tussle

So, how was TikTok used to Troll Trump’s Tulsa Tussle?  It wasn’t,  that is to say, the platform itself wasn’t used for ordering the tickets. Rather it has to do with one of the common uses of the app where users post challenges for other users.

These challenges are often dance-related.  In this case, however, a woman posted a video challenging others to reserve tickets, and then of course not to show up.  Within about a week the video had been seen more than 2 million times.  Other users began posting TikToks of themselves requesting tickets.

It was a masterful troll of a master troll.  Better yet, Trump’s campaign manager and digital guru Brad Parscale was left with a double layer of egg on his face.

The first when he bragged about pulling off the greatest registration effort and data haul in history, then when he tried to blame the empty seats on “Radical protesters”. and, get this, COVID-19.  This debacle no doubt played in Trump’s recent decision to demote Parscale.

Anyway, now Trump is so upset that he wants to ban TikTok in the United States. His claim is that this is something he has been considering for a while and that it is not just about Tik Tok but “other “Chinese apps” as well.  We all know that is hogwash, but it has given the anti-mask crowd a new cause-celebre.

The question is, can the man who can’t even seem to get hardened criminal Hillary Clinton off the streets, despite all the evidence against her, actually ban TikTok in the United States?

I’ll leave the legal layers of this lunacy for another article and focus here only on the tremendous technological tangle.

So, purely from a technical standpoint can it be done?  Empathically, No.  To help you understand why Let me introduce the basics of two important features of the internet. I’ll start with a phone call.

I got your number on the wall

In the olden days, we had directory assistance  (if you are not familiar, ask your parents). It worked like this:  I could call a human being, give them the name of a person or business, and if the name I gave them had a phone, the human on the other end would give me the relevant phone number.  Directory assistance was free but they did charge extra if I wanted them to dial the number for me.

The internet has a sort of directory assistance. It is called the Domain Name Service or DNS service. It works in much the same way except it is computers talking to computers, and they do not even offer to dial any numbers.

image depicting DNS server traffic

On the internet, the equivalent of the phone number is called an IP address.  Every web site has one (or more). Every web page on the Internet has a unique address (called a URI or URL).  the first part of this unique address is the domain name. In the case of this article, the domain name is nationalcompass.net.

The DNS Service keeps a list of which domain names are located at which IP address.  The DNS service is responsible to give that information out when asked. As an example, I asked the DNS service for the IP address of nationalcompass.net and it told me it is 173.236.55.90.

It is important to note that this list of Domains mapped to IP addresses is distributed on machines all across the world. Any of these computers or in fact many of these computers can fail or be shut off and the system continues to function at least in some fashion.

Back to our phone call

Also in the olden days, phone numbers were tied to physical street addresses. If you live in Montana your area code would be 406 for example.  Prefixes were also assigned to a city or town.  Growing up, everyone in my town had a prefix of 356. The area codes and prefixes were assigned this way so the call could be sent easily to the intended location.

My local phone exchange was only responsible to handle calls placed to numbers with a 406 area code and a 356 prefix If I dialed a number with a 232 prefix my local exchange didn’t know where that call was meant to go. Instead, it connected the call to another machine that was responsible to know such things.

That other machine then connected the call to the exchange responsible for the 232 prefix (Miles City, Montana ) et viola I was able to talk to my girlfriend.

This process of connecting my phone to another phone. possibly across the country or around the world is called routing.  Although the technology is vastly faster and better the concept of connecting your computer to this web page is largely the same. The computers which perform this digital traffic control are called unimaginatively, routers.

But what does any of that have to do with Tiny hands and his torment about TikTok?

Suppose that for whatever reason the government decided that some users of the phone system will no longer be allowed to call a video store in a certain city (again, ask your parents). 

From a purely technological standpoint, there are two ways to do this  First, they could force the directory assistance system to give selected people the wrong phone number or no number at all. Second, they could exercise control over the routing process.

The first option is of very limited use if there are other ways to find out the number.  The second option could theoretically work, assuming the government could get “control” of the switches which handle the flow of calls.

In Internet terms these options would be to either, manipulate the results from a DNS query or blocking access to certain IP Addresses. The Chinese Government uses both of the methods above in their efforts to control the internet.

The success of the operation to block some phone calls hinges on the simplicity of the equation. Redirecting all people everywhere who call a specific number would be simple. Blocking only people in Whitefish, Montana from calling Toledo would be much more difficult. Stopping everyone in both Whitefish and Denver from making calls to Poughkeepsie, Talledega, and Huntsville?… Well, you get the idea.

But,  that was the olden days.

The routing system used for phone traffic today is far more advanced. Phone calls are handled by computers that understand logic making the above scenarios theoretically possible today. In the lab that is.

The system that routes internet traffic is a good deal more complicated than phones, is more robust and has more redundancy built in.  More importantly, the Internet has an autonomy that even today’s phone system does not. Still, technically what Trump is talking about can be done to some degree as it is in China.

Chinese Fire Drill

The Chinese government exercises control over every bit of internet traffic crossing its borders. At least they try to. And, yes that includes a ban on TikTok. They do this using a combination of legislative measures and technological machinations. Together these are called The Great Firewall

The Chinese system uses several types of bitplay including black holes, packet sniffing, DNS Spoofing, and IP address blocking in an attempt to achieve its goals.

The thing is, the Great Firewall wouldn’t be possible if the Chinese Government didn’t have dominion over every internet backbone into the country. In the olden days the USA had that option, today we don’t.

In 1994 The Clinton Administration handed the job of carrying long-distance internet traffic to private companies. At that time a government entity called NSFNET “owned” the internet lines that connected the US to the rest of the world.  Today Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and others own and control those backbones.

In order for Trump to get the kind of control, he would need, all of the companies that have ownership over the broadband pathways which we Americans use would need to be convinced in some way to help with his vendetta. That or they would need to be compelled to do so. Neither is likely. Worry not short-form video fans  TikTok is safe.

Going Eurostyle

Trump claims that his desire to ban TikTok and other Chinese apps stems from a concern about personal data being shared with the Chinese Government.

There have been several notable security complaints leveled against the app so this concern has some validity.  Notably, the app shares location data which could be a concern for any of our troops who might have the app loaded. Generally speaking, many apps share a phone’s location however, certainly not just those from China.

There are also concerns with children’s personal data being shared.  ByteDance which makes the app does not allow users under the age of 18 to enter personal data. This restriction is likely due to laws present in many states which govern how apps can handle the data of minor students.

Privacy concerns are valid but they would be better dealt with through laws that give the people of the U.S. more dominion over our personal data. I am talking about something like the Eurozone’s GDPR.  I wouldn’t count on this happening though.

I have written about the GDPR before, If you are interested you can find that article here.

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