In some ways, the social media app TikTok couldn’t have rose to prominence at a worse moment. The platform for sharing short-form video clips is owned by the Chinese startup Bytedance, and surged in popularity just as the United States’ relations with China are turning icier than they have been in years. At the same time, US regulators are more closely scrutinizing the data privacy practices of social media companies than ever before, after scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica debacle erupted last year. Republican lawmakers routinely accuse the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube of censoring conservative voices.
Now TikTok is coming under fire for many of the same issues. On top of that, it has to find a way to explain its relationship with Beijing. Oh, and the app is particularly popular with teenagers and young people. Put it all together, and it’s like catnip for politicians with an agenda to push.
During a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday, lawmakers and national security experts questioned whether TikTok really operates independently from China as the company has claimed. “Parents, if you don’t know what TikTok is, you should,” senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), one of tech’s loudest critics in Congress, said at the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. “A company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they’re watching, and what they share with each other.”
TikTok declined to send an executive to attend the hearing. (Apple also was a no-show.) Instead, Vanessa Pappas, the company’s general US manager, released a lengthy statement on its website. “Every day, our US team makes decisions that we see as best for the US market, and we are given the independence to do so,” she wrote. Pappas also said that TikTok stores data on US users within the country, and that its content moderation team for the US market is similarly based in California.
The hearing took place just hours after The Washington Post published an article in which former TikTok staff said they were instructed by managers in China to censor videos on the platform, validating lawmakers’ existing fears about the company. Last month, senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) sent a letter to US intelligence officials asking them to investigate national security risks posed by TikTok, including “the potential for censorship or manipulation of certain content.” TikTok told The Washington Post that it initially wanted to moderate its platform according to a centralized set of rules, but later rethought the “one size fits all” approach. It now has different policies for each region it operates in.
Also on Tuesday, senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) sent a letter to Alex Zhu, the head of TikTok, asking the company to answer a series of questions related to children’s privacy by November 26. Earlier this year, TikTok reached a more than $5 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over claims that it illegally gathered personal information on children younger than 13. The settlement concerned the practices of Musical.ly, an American karaoke app Bytedance purchased in 2017 and later absorbed into TikTok.
“It is crucial that Chinese-linked efforts to collect data from American children ends,” Blackburn wrote. “Because TikTok is owned by ByteDance, the app is subject to foreign laws that allow China’s government to seize information and technology.”
It’s not yet clear whether mounting scrutiny from lawmakers will meaningfully impact TikTok’s operations in the US. Last week, Reuters first reported that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) had opened an investigation into Bytedance’s $1 billion acquisition of Musical.ly two years ago. The worst case result of the investigation would be that CFIUS tries to compel TikTok to divest its assets related to Musical.ly. Earlier this year, the Chinese gaming company Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. said it would sell the US dating app Grindr after CFIUS raised national security concerns.
The extra attention TikTok has received from regulators and journalists has filtered down to users, some of whom have questioned whether they’re being censored by China. After The Washington Post reported about the lack of content on TikTok concerning the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, some users began experimenting to see whether their videos about the demonstrations would be removed, for instance. Similar stunts were carried out earlier this year when the Chinese tech giant Tencent announced it would invest in Reddit.
social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/tiktok-rough-time-washington