Time’s Up: Chinese-Owned TikTok Has Some Explaining to Do
Seems like everyone is on the social media platform these days---a treasure trove of personal data for Beijing.
If anyone is benefiting from the pandemic, it’s TikTok. Amid continued stay-at-home orders and gruelingly slow reopening processes, the popular social media platform that allows folks to create 15-second videos—often lip-synced dances, comedy sketches, and tutorials—has enjoyed a spike in growth like no other.
Since January, there’s been a nearly 50 percent uptick in its U.S.-unique visitors, and it added more than 12 million unique visitors in March alone. Previously known as a platform for Gen-Zers, the quarantine lockdown has pushed the Millennial generation and mainstream Hollywood onto TikTok. Everyone is anxious to blow off some steam these days, and TikTok has surely helped.
But with the platform’s skyrocketing prominence has come plenty of reason for concern.
The difference between TikTok and other major social media? TikTok isn’t an American company—it’s owned by a Chinese firm, ByteDance. And as TikTok continues to dominate in growth and reach (it has 800 million active users as of late April), it might be smart for Congress and agencies like the Federal Trade Commission—even the Office of the Director of National Intelligence—to take a closer look at its practices.
ByteDance, a company now valued at $100 billion, launched TikTok in 2017, and entered the U.S. market when it bought the Shanghai-founded app Musical.ly, merging it with TikTok. The company has since tried distancing its American product by operating a similar but separate app, Douyin, in China. They maintain, too, that American data they collect from TikTok stays on servers in the United States.
Somehow, TikTok thinks it can convince people it’s not really a Chinese company. But its executives have declined to testify before the Senate because they live in China, according to Senator Josh Hawley. Yet the spokesman for the company has insisted that TikTok isn’t a Chinese company, on the basis that ByteDance is incorporated in the Cayman Islands.
It isn’t relevant how many offshore registrations a company has. We should call a spade a spade: TikTok is a Chinese company, and its track record and immense data collection presents a danger to Americans and democracy. We know what it does with data collection in its own country—it violates human rights in part by operating a mass censorship and surveillance apparatus against its own people.
TikTok has used its reach and content moderation capability to help cultivate the Chinese government’s preferred global narrative. The platform’s content moderation decisions are even made by ByteDance in Beijing, according to former U.S. employees of TikTok. It makes sense, then, that leaked documents have showed TikTok moderators being instructed to remove posts about political topics sensitive to China, including the Hong Kong protests. TikTok has also blocked videos about China’s human rights abuses, including the Xinjiang re-education camps.
Back in March, The Intercept disclosed that TikTok moderators were instructed to suppress posts created by users deemed “too ugly, poor, or disabled” and to censor political speech in livestreams, banning users who “endanger” China’s “national honor” and criticize “state organs such as police.”
TikTok, and consequently the Chinese government, collect private information from all of their 800 million users. We’re talking usage information, IP addresses, users’ mobile carrier information, unique device identifiers, keystroke patterns, and location data. TikTok also has built-in facial recognition software. According to a lawsuit against it in the U.S. (that was recently settled), the software can be used to evaluate the quality of uploaded videos, determine the user’s age, and acquire facial geometry. And while TikTok insists that American data doesn’t make it to China, a class-action lawsuit has alleged a transfer of the personally identifiable information of Americans to servers located in China.
Congress is finally catching up. Legislation recently introduced would prohibit all federal employees from using or downloading the app. For its part, TikTok has been hiring top talent from other tech companies, like former Disney executive Kevin Mayer, its new CEO. This is a clear attempt to give the company an American facade as it faces tough questions in Washington.
Congress and consumers are entitled to answers. Only an enormous amount of transparency, cooperation, and foundational change would transform TikTok into a tech company we can trust with our data. That’s not impossible, but it’s going to take longer than 15 seconds.
Ashkhen Kazaryan is the director of civil liberties at TechFreedom, a Young Voices contributor, and an expert at the Federalist Society’s Emerging Technology Working Group.