Tiktok, launched by Chinese company ByteDance in September 2017, has quickly become one of the most popular social networks in the world, with young people its main market. Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his demand for the US government to get a piece of the action to let Microsoft or any other company here buy popular China-based social media app TikTok.

Trump’s stance was slammed by critics who said it appears unconstitutional and akin to extortion.

“We have all the cards, because without us, you can’t come into the United States,” Trump said during a White House press briefing.

“If you’re a landlord, you have a tenant, the tenant’s business needs rent, it needs a lease.”

Trump maintained that a large share of any TikTok purchase price should go to the US treasury, and that Microsoft “agreed with me very much”.

Microsoft did not immediately return a request for comment.

Trump on Monday said he was prepared to approve a deal selling TikTok assets to Microsoft or another US company after warning of a national security ban, but maintained that he would ask for “a substantial portion” of any transaction to come into the Treasury.

Trump lacks authority for this demand, critics said, adding that if carried out it would be bad for business and international relations.

“Those are the sort of mafia tactics you might see in Russia,” said James Lewis, director of technology policy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s not a good policy practice. I don’t think it’s constitutional.”

Bobby Chesney, a University of Texas law professor specialising in national security and constitutional issues, said Trump’s suggestion “is grossly inappropriate and unbecoming, not to mention having no basis in law”.

Former federal prosecutor Michael Bromwich said on Twitter that Trump’s demands sounded like racketeering, referring to the law known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

“This is becoming a more overt RICO enterprise with each passing day,” he wrote in response to Trump’s comments.

The Wall Street Journal journalists Spencer Jakab and Dan Gallagher wrote in an opinion piece that Microsoft should reject any such overture.

“If the proposal is serious, and deemed legal, it would set a dangerous precedent for the seizure of foreign businesses through regulatory fiat, and open the door for US firms to suffer the same treatment,” they wrote.

“If the price includes an unseemly pay-out to the US Treasury, corporate America has far more to lose than to gain by participating.”

Used by as many as a billion people worldwide to make quirky short-form videos on their cellphones, TikTok is the latest front in the ongoing political and trade battles between Washington and Beijing.

The United States maintains that TikTok collects users’ personal data that the Chinese government can access and make use of for intelligence and other purposes. TikTok denies its user data goes to the Chinese government.

Meanwhile Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Tuesday there was no evidence that Chinese-owned TikTok had abused the data of its hundreds of millions of users.

“We have had a good look at this, and there is no evidence for us to suggest… that there is any misuse of any people’s data,” he told the Aspen Security Forum meeting in Aspen, Colorado.

“There are plenty of things that are on TikTok that are embarrassing enough in public, but it’s that sort of social media device,” he said via videoconference, chuckling.

However, he said, Australians need to be “very aware” that TikTok and other social media platforms, including US-owned companies, reap enormous amounts of information on users and subscribers. – AFP