TikTok vs Palantir: China and the progressives
Shou Zi Chew, the Chief Executive Officer of the social media app TikTok, did not have a pleasant Thursday 23rd March. A member of the global elite, with an MBA from Harvard and Goldman Sachs on his CV, the Singaporean businessman would not have been used to the hard time he received live on American TV.
Chew spent it being grilled by members of the United States Congress. In a rare case of bipartisanship, Republicans and Democrats were equally rude to him and dismissive of his defence of TikTok. Almost all questioned whether or stated that it was a security threat to the United States, due to its Chinese origins and ability to extract user data. It was referenced how Byte Dance employees, Byte Dance being the owner of TikTok, had accessed two journalists’ TikTok data, seeking to find the source of leaks at Byte Dance.
One of his weaker arguments was that Tik Tok was not in fact Chinese, being headquartered in Singapore. This argument is rather undercut by the Chinese government’s vigorous defence of TikTok and Byte Dance. After all, if TikTok is not Chinese, why would the Chinese government care? What is interesting is not the hostility of Congress, which is understandable as Chinese-US rivalry grows, but rather the progressive media/legal/activist forces that seek to defend TikTok. There are various groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who are likely to go to court to fight a ban on TikTok if one is imposed by Congress. These are the same progressive types, especially in the US and UK, who have a pathological aversion to the US software company Palantir.
So why would progressives defend or overlook an app from an authoritarian state, which governments around the world are banning from government devices, but target a US-originated company that works with governments across the West and has specifically set out not to work with authoritarian regimes? The original sin of Palantir in the eyes of progressive opinion was to be founded to work with Western security forces. For these progressives the fact that the CIA’s venture capital arm was an early investor and Peter Thiel was a founder is not proof that Palantir is a serious firm, but rather that it is tainted by the deep state and a sinister billionaire. Thiel is a tech billionaire who does not follow the woke Silicon Valley consensus. Palantir has even moved its headquarters out of Silicon Valley and relocated to Colorado, due in part to constant protests outside its old offices by progressive activists.
Ordinary people, who are not progressive activists, might point out that the West needs world class software engineers working on national security and not more software on how to make cat videos on YouTube more appealing. In a world of a rising China, an aggressive Russia and disruptive Iran, surely the West needs companies like Palantir even more than ever, just as the West needs spy agencies and satellites? Some people might suggest Peter Thiel is not actually a sinister billionaire, but rather a visionary who foresaw the need for a Palantir type company before anyone else. Even the progressive activists tacitly acknowledge the force of the national security argument by not taking on Palantir head on in relation to its defence work but seeking other ways to undermine it.
One example is Palantir’s involvement in the NHS. There is a dedicated “No Palantir in our NHS” campaign. This campaign is supported by Liberty, War on Want and a group called Coventry against Racism. The progressive activists seem content for uninformed journalists to write articles about Palantir secretly seeking health data, when they must know full well that Palantir is not a social media company that harvests information. In fact, its national security background means that data security is part of its corporate DNA.
The merits of whether Palantir should be involved in the NHS seem never actually to be discussed. Namely after a failed twenty-year model of the NHS hiring consultants to produce bespoke IT that has not worked, but been very lucrative for those consultants, surely an outside expert provider should be tried? This never seems to be addressed in the media, being lost in inaccurate stories about how a wicked and sinister software company is coming to steal your health data and privatise the NHS. The idea that using Palantir software is akin to privatisation is laughable, but reflects the progressives’ bias. It is a bit like claiming that hospitals buying MRI scanners, instead of building their own from scratch, is really a plot to privatise the NHS. If Palantir has something to offer the NHS, it should be considered on its merits. The progressives’ fight with Palantir should not interfere with anything that helps the overstretched NHS modernise, digitise, and tackle its problems.
Why do these double standards in relation to TikTok and Palantir matter? China is a rising global power and there is growing concern in the West that its authoritarian politics is not compatible with liberal democracy. If the West is to face this challenge it will need software and technology companies to match China’s growing expertise in these areas. In short, progressives should grow up, stop obsessing about Palantir and be more concerned about the threat that China and its tech companies pose to global freedom.
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