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23 March 2023

Is the clock ticking for TikTok?

US policymakers are turning their attention to TikTok following the Chinese spy balloon debacle.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: On 23 March, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew attempted to defend TikTok’s data protection and security policies during a combative US congressional hearing. Lawmakers indicated they were not satisfied with new measures intended to protect American users’ data.

WASHINGTON – As the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon floated across the United States last week, it provided a vivid, 200ft-tall illustration of what many Washington policymakers view as the growing national security threat from China. Rolling news coverage across the major television networks mapped the balloon’s position against the location of strategic sites such as the silos of nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in Montana. Even before it was shot down by a heat-seeking missile on 4 February, prominent Republicans had linked the balloon to other perceived vulnerabilities to Chinese surveillance, such as the TikTok social media platform.

“A big Chinese balloon in the sky and millions of Chinese TikTok balloons on our phones,” tweeted Mitt Romney, the relatively moderate Republican senator and former presidential candidate. “Let’s shut them all down.” Kevin Cramer, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, characterised the balloon as just the latest in a series of Chinese surveillance efforts, claiming that “TikTok collects data from millions of Americans every day”. The issue resonated beyond the usual foreign policy circles inside Washington. In his television show on 3 February the comedian Bill Maher discussed the incident during his opening monologue. “The Chinese promised they would never use a spy balloon to infiltrate and monitor America,” he quipped. “That’s what TikTok is for.”

“This is just making congresspeople and the executive branch angrier when they’re already angry,” Joshua Kurlantzick, the author of Beijing’s Global Media Offensive: China’s Uneven Campaign to Influence Asia and the World, told me of the balloon’s impact on US politics. “The climate of concern about China is the most intense it has been in decades, and this goes across the political spectrum. There is not much daylight between even the most far-right Republicans and most Democrats when it comes to China.”

The clock was already ticking for TikTok: bipartisan legislation that would ban the app from operating in the country altogether was submitted to Congress in December. The bill alleges that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, poses a security risk to Americans by collecting data that could be accessed by the Chinese government and allowing the platform to curate sources of news, which could be used to influence public opinion.

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“TikTok is digital fentanyl that’s addicting Americans, collecting troves of their data, and censoring their news,” wrote one of the bill’s co-sponsors Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman who chairs the new House select committee on China. “Allowing the app to continue to operate in the US would be like allowing the USSR to buy up the New York Times, Washington Post, and major broadcast networks during the Cold War.”

Raja Krishnamoorthi, the leading Democrat on the new select committee and co-sponsor of the legislation said it represented “a strong step in protecting our nation from the nefarious digital surveillance and influence operations of totalitarian regimes”.

TikTok denies that it has ever shared, or been asked to share data on US users with the Chinese government, and insists that it would not do so if asked. The company has said that it is working with the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS), which is led by the US Treasury Department, to address national security concerns and prove that American users’ data is secure.

TikTok is one of the world’s most popular social media platforms, with more than a billion monthly users and an estimated 100 million users in the US, the majority of whom are aged under 24. Around a third of American adults who use the app say they regularly get their news from TikTok.

The platform was banned in India in 2020, along with 58 other Chinese-linked apps, following deadly border clashes between Chinese and Indian troops. The Indian government cited the need to protect the “safety and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace”. In the UK, the Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, urged British users to delete the app on 5 February, although there are no plans for a ban there. “TikTok gave evidence to my committee where they said there was no way that individuals working in China could get access to the data of Britons,” Kearns said in an interview with Sky News. “But what we’ve now seen is that people working in China for TikTok hacked into European data so it could track down the source of a journalist.” She warned that the UK needed to “get far more serious” about protecting its citizens’ data. “While balloons are an important diplomatic spike in opportunity to have this conversation, our bigger concerns are the data penetration [and] pathway dependency that China is creating on Chinese companies.”

The extent of TikTok’s difficulties in the US became clear in 2020 when Donald Trump, president at the time, ordered the platform to sell its assets there to an American company or face a ban (the move was challenged in the courts). After Joe Biden took over the presidency in 2021 he rescinded Trump’s order and referred the issue to CFIUS, which has been tasked with assessing the national security implications of several foreign-owned apps. As US-China relations have since worsened, however, TikTok has come under renewed scrutiny.

In November the FBI director Christopher Wray told the House Committee on Homeland Security that TikTok posed “national security concerns”. Wray said these included the possibility that the Chinese government could potentially access users’ data and use the app’s recommendation algorithm to conduct “influence operations”, or even to “control software on millions of devices”. (TikTok has said that it complies with data protection laws and stores US data within the US.)

More than two dozen US states including Texas, Ohio and Florida have introduced restrictions on the app’s use on government-issued devices. Legislation passed by Congress in December banned the use of TikTok on all federal government devices. Brendan Carr, one of five commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – which does not have the power to regulate the platform directly – told Axios in November that he did not see a “path forward for anything other than a ban”.

“I still think that the Biden administration would ideally like to negotiate some sort of solution where TikTok makes an ironclad pledge, backed up by CFIUS, to store all US users’ data on servers in the US, and then build those servers,” said Kurlantzick, who is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank. The company would have to demonstrate, and Congress would have to be satisfied, that American users’ data could no longer be accessed from Beijing. (TikTok acknowledged in testimony to senators last June that some employees outside the US, including in China, could access American users’ data in specific circumstances, subject to approval by its US security team.) Kurlantzick pointed out, however, that despite the size of the US market, TikTok might have reservations about this: “Because then every single other democracy in the world is going to ask for the same thing.”

Set against the renewed calls for a ban on TikTok in the US, and the imperative for Biden to be seen as “tough” on China ahead of the 2024 presidential election, Kurlantzick suggested that the president might be wary of alienating younger voters by targeting their favourite app. “The fact is that TikTok is incredibly popular among young people,” he said. “Biden has to keep in mind that if be bans TikTok, whatever the geopolitical reasons, a lot of young people, who are critical to the Democrat party’s prospects of victory in any election, are not going to be happy about that. This hasn’t been talked about much, but I think it has to be in the back of [the administration’s] mind.”

US-China relations were deteriorating long before the spy balloon debacle, and TikTok was already in the sights of China hawks, but the diplomatic crisis the incident has ignited will only lead to more pressure on the social media platform. As the febrile atmosphere in Washington becomes ever more heated, lawmakers will only be more determined to be seen to take a strong stance against China. As Biden warned directly in his State of the Union speech on 7 February, “Make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country.” The House of Representatives voted unanimously on 9 February to condemn the balloon’s incursion as a “brazen violation of United States sovereignty”. 

[See also: Your therapist shouldn’t be on TikTok]

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