Boom Lowering on TikTok
Terry H. Schwadron
March 21, 2023
If the current Washington debate about banning or controlling TikTok to assure national safety from Chinese manipulation appeared on the app, I suppose that there would be a lot of bouncing heads and irreverently humorous poking at the main characters as beset teens in the White House, Congress, and Beijing.
Joe Biden has now aligned himself with congressional voices in both parties, Donald Trump, and the FBI to put all on notice that Chinese Big Tech and its state sponsors need to sell the burgeoning parody app or face a nationwide ban over concerns of spying on Americans or potential efforts to influence mostly young, impressionable users about political issues.
Already, TikTok is barred from government phones as well as on multiple college campuses. Two dozen states and cities are considering like bans or considering controls — without an understanding about how exactly those would be enforced.
While FBI Director Christopher Wray is raising national security concerns about TikTok for collecting data that “could be used for traditional espionage operations,” there is little public evidence about what exactly is at risk.
According to The New York Times and Forbes Magazine the FBI and Justice Department are investigating whether TikTok and its parent company data were used to surveil American journalists — from China. If true, so far it is a focused case for which the company said it dismissed two employees. On a wider basis, the threat so far is more theoretical than demonstrable.
So, the Chinese are complaining loudly that an American takeover or ban is neither justified or an effective answer fears that the Chinese have accessed Americans’ data or meddled with TikTok’s code.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who said as much to The Wall Street Journal, is supposed to appear at a congressional hearing getting underway today.
It is more than a little difficult to understand what exactly the controlling Chinese Communist Party wants to do with the information from widespread TikTok accounts of 100 million teens who, from the evidence of stupid electronic photo tricks that appear on the app, don’t deal with too much worth spying on. It might be a good idea to ban electronic time-wasting altogether, but apparently that’s not on the table. Instead, we want to envision billions of Chinese storehousing email and messaging contacts for millions of American teens towards a nefarious end.
So ok, the national security folks are concerned, and for the moment, then, let’s go with that.
The Current Situation
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech company, that like all tech companies is believed to have ties to the Chinese state party.
The White House last week said it was supporting a bipartisan proposal, led by Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), that calls for the Commerce Department to review the potential risks of apps with links to certain foreign “adversary” countries, such as China, and to order more official restrictions or a nationwide ban. Biden has said TikTok and ByteDance should sell the company, presuming to American interests. We even have an independent agency called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is pushing the option for the Chinese to sell.
ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech company, clearly is making a lot of money with its private company and doesn’t want to sell. ByteDance says its shares are mostly owned by big international investors, could also be blocked from selling TikTok by the Chinese government, which has sought to protect its recommendation algorithms from foreigners.
The Washington Post now reminds us that we went through this discussion three years ago under Donald Trump. Courts stopped the Trump administration from forcing a sale of TikTok because it could not show that there was an actual threat. While anti-Chinese sentiment has increased in Washington with more brushes of international conflict, it is not clear that we have any new evidence to prevent the same courts from stopping a forced sale to Americans now.
In 2021, the Biden administration revoked Trump’s executive order banning TikTok, saying it would instead launch a security review of many foreign-linked apps alongside a parallel push for a comprehensive national privacy law. Last year, ByteDance proposed a plan that would have subjected the company to closer government scrutiny while allowing ByteDance to continue as owner; the CIFUS committee insisted that ByteDance sell out. ByteDance still oversees TikTok’s engineering.
More generally, of course, there are First Amendment issues in this case to be weighed against national security. And it is not clear that there is an American buyer who wants to pay the high commercial value that ByteDance would require.
The Role of U.S. Companies
Curious in all this is the role for U.S. competitors, who also collect — and sell — tons of our personal data without interference from Congress or the White House, and who certainly have been caught up in roiling debates over seeking to influence our politics.
As things stand, if TikTok is forced to sell, companies like Meta/Facebook or Snap/Snapchat would benefit.
Whatever evils are caused by oversubscription of America’s youth to TikTok are true for U.S. companies as well.
It seems possible that the administration could get more aggressive in barring or limiting American companies from working with ByteDance or TikTok or providing technological cooperation. The government did so over Huawei, the Chinese telecom company, keeping the Chinese firm from being ab le to connect to U.S. phone systems.
In 2019 Chinese company Beijing Kunlun Tech was forced to sell the popular gay dating app Grindr over concerns about spying or blackmail. This month, a Post investigation determined that even after Grindr’s sale, the app’s data was used by a conservative Catholic group that bought it to identify and track gay priests — with no laws apparently applying.
Add into all this the current American political picture in which Republicans are spending as much time deriding Biden for being “weak” on China as on the detest for potential threats from Chinese state surveillance of Americans.
Parodies aside, it seems there are serious issues at hand in the TikTok debate and in the out-of-sight international machinations behind the scenes. None of those will be settled in congressional name-calling hearings.