In Washington, D.C., the company that makes TikTok is getting its 15 seconds of fame, and it’s probably hating every second of it.
TikTok, the smartphone app that features 15-second video clips set to pop music, bores the daylights out of me, but teens and young adults are all over it. TikTok has rung up between 200 million and half a billion users worldwide, depending on who you ask — its parent company, ByteDance, isn’t especially transparent about such things.
Then again, ByteDance is based in China, a nation that’s not much for transparency but has a real knack for censorship and privacy violations. Which is why the amazing success of TikTok is spooking the Trump administration and Congress.
The Internet was designed by people who took certain American values for granted — free speech, limits on government power, stuff like that. But China rejects these assumptions, to put it mildly. China routinely censors newspapers and Internet sites, TV shows and movies, and has put an estimated 1 million people in concentration camps just because they’re Muslims.
And now for the first time, a Chinese company is operating a social media app that’s massively popular in the United States. So what if ByteDance does business in accord with Chinese values?
What happens when an American TikTok user posts a video defending the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong or calling for the independence of Taiwan? How long before such videos get taken down? Bad enough for the Chinese to censor their own citizens; with TikTok, they’re now in a position to censor the rest of us.
ByteDance says it doesn’t do this, and I had no trouble finding videos backing the Hong Kong protesters. But earlier this week, The Washington Post cited several former US TikTok workers who said they fought losing battles against the head office in Beijing over the removal of videos with controversial political content, or even of people kissing.
Or what’s to stop TikTok from sharing its vast amounts of data about American users with China’s government, for use in spying on our citizens? In February, the company paid a $5.7 million fine to the Federal Trade Commission for illegally capturing sensitive information about children under age 13. ByteDance has vowed to sin no more, but can we trust TikTok?
We’ve just seen an example of how far a foreign government might go to obtain social media data. On Wednesday, the Justice Department indicted two former employees of Twitter for stealing data at the behest of Saudi Arabia, who used the information to spy on opponents of the regime. It’s easy to imagine China making similar demands of ByteDance. And under a law issued last year, all Chinese Internet companies must hand over data on demand to the government.
ByteDance says its files on adult Americans are stored in the United States, out of reach of China’s government. But if Beijing demanded copies of the data, would ByteDance executives dare to refuse?
Congress is paying attention. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the US tech industry’s links to China. Apple and TikTok were on the agenda, but neither showed up. It wasn’t a good look.
Meanwhile, GOP Senator Marco Rubio has called for an investigation into the deal that spawned TikTok in the first place. In 2017, ByteDance acquired Musical.ly, a Shanghai video app maker that mostly catered to the US market. At the time, US regulators didn’t object. But Rubio now wants the acquisition reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, an agency that can veto deals that might undermine US national security.
It’s possible that the Musical.ly deal could be undone. In 2016, Chinese-based company Beijing Kunlun Tech bought a majority stake in Grindr, a popular gay dating app. Two years later, Kunlun bought the rest of the company. But at about the same time, US lawmakers, including Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Markey, warned that Grindr is stuffed full of sensitive data about its users — data that should never be available to the Chinese government.
In the end, CFIUS ordered Kunlun to divest Grindr by June 2020, either by selling it to a company based outside of China, or by issuing its stock to the public. But now there are reports that CFIUS is indeed investigating TikTok, on national security concerns. How far will the government go to rein in a service that’s perhaps four or five times bigger than Twitter? I suppose it depends on how frightened officials are of China.
A piece in Politico argues that this is all good news for domestic titans such as Facebook and Google, which can pose as defenders of US liberty instead of fending off demands that they be broken up. But why should they get off the hook?
Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube service are often accused of censoring controversial content, often without any clear explanation. At a time when Americans depend on these services to express themselves, surely we’re owed maximum freedom to publish what we want, along with fair, transparent standards for banning the stuff that goes too far.
As for scooping up all our data without regard to privacy, American companies invented the idea and keep pushing it to new extremes. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, recently announced a plan to buy Fitbit, the maker of digital health monitoring devices. It’s not enough for Alphabet to track our Web searches or use the location chip in our Android phones to track our movements. Now they want to record our heartbeats as well.
I can’t imagine why US antitrust authorities would let the Fitbit deal go through. About all you can say in its favor is that our medical data won’t end up in China.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.