The US government is once more prohibiting TikTok as the Biden administration is now taking similar action, nearly two and a half years after the Trump administration threatened to ban TikTok in the US if it didn’t divest from its Chinese owners.
Last week, TikTok admitt that federal regulators are pressuring the social media platform’s Chinese owners to sell their holdings in the business or face having their app ban in the US.
After years of discussions between TikTok and the government authority, the multiagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the new directive has issued. (CFIUS is the same organisation that in 2019 compelled the sale of the Gay dating app Grindr from Chinese ownership.)
As additional politicians once more express national security worries over the app, the US government’s ultimatum appears to be an increase in pressure from Washington. After years in which the app has only increased its influence on American culture, TikTok’s future in the United States suddenly seems less clear.
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Others in Washington have expressed worry that the Chinese government could hack the app and effectively spy on US users or access US user data. Others have expressed concern over the potential use of the app by the Chinese government to disseminate propaganda to US citizens.
Both have as their central worry that any corporation conducting business in China would ultimately be subject to Chinese Communist Party laws.
Some issues brought up are not specific to TikTok, but rather more generally regarding the risk that social media sites could send young users down dangerous rabbit holes.
If this most recent event reminds you of something, it’s because it’s reminiscent of the American narrative TikTok already underwent. The story began in 2020, when the Trump administration threatened TikTok with a ban if it didn’t buy itself out by a US-based corporation.
Social media creators went crazy, Oracle and Walmart were mention as potential purchasers, and TikTok began a protracted legal battle with the US government. At the time, some detractors criticised then-president Donald Trump’s campaign against the app as xenophobic political theatre and criticised Trump’s outlandish idea that the United States should have a share of any deal if it forced the app’s sale to an American company.
The Trump administration’s executive order targeting TikTok subsequently overturned by the Biden administration, who replaced it with a more comprehensive directive aimed at looking into technology connected to foes abroad, notably China.
CFIUS persisted in talks to reach a potential agreement that would let the app to carry on operating in the US. Then Washington started to become more scrutinising once more.
In light of a story from last year that claimed workers from TikTok’s parent company, Byte Dance, had routinely accessed American user data, lawmakers have redoubled their efforts to investigate the app’s connections to China. The report has refuted by TikTok.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew reiterated the company’s prior vows to resolve the lawmakers’ concerns in a rare speech earlier this month at a Harvard Business Review conference.
“The Chinese government has actually never asked us for US user data,” Chew said, “and we’ve said this on the record, that even if we where asked for that, we will not provide that.” Chew added that “all US user data is stored, by default, in the Oracle Cloud infrastructure” and “access to that data is completely controlled by US personnel.”
As for the concerns that the Chinese government might use the app to spew propaganda to a US audience, Chew emphasized that this would be bad for business, noting that some 60% of TikTok’s owners are global investors. “Misinformation and propaganda has no place on our platform, and our users do not expect that,” he said.
In response to the CFIUS divestiture request, a TikTok spokesperson this week that a change in ownership wouldn’t impact how US user data is accessed.
“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said in a statement. “A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access. The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, US-based protection of US user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing.”
TikTok is really only a national security risk insofar as the Chinese government may have leverage over TikTok or its parent company. China has national security laws that require companies under its jurisdiction to cooperate with a broad range of security activities. The main issue is that the public has few ways of verifying whether or how that leverage has been exercised. (TikTok doesn’t operate in China, but Byte Dance does.)
Privacy and security researchers who have looked under the hood at TikTok’s app say that, as far as they can tell, TikTok isn’t much different from other social networks in terms of the data it collects or how it communicates with company servers. That’s still a lot of personally revealing information, but it doesn’t imply that TikTok’s app itself is inherently malicious or a kind of spyware.
That’s why the concern really focuses on TikTok and Byte Dance’s relationship to the Chinese government, and why the Biden administration is pushing for TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their shares.
Following a bloody border incident with China in the summer of 2020, India quickly removed the more than 200 subscribers the app had amassed there by banning TikTok.
Several nations, like the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have lately passed prohibitions of TikTok on official, government devices while refraining from doing the same for personal ones.
President Joseph Biden signed a law outlawing TikTok on federal government equipment at the end of last year, and more than half of the US states have passed similar state-level regulations. This ban was publicly denounced by a TikTok official as “nothing more than political theatre.”
The statement continued, “The ban of TikTok on federal equipment passed in December without any discussion, and regrettably that approach has served as a model for other governments across the world.