Here’s one thing you not often hear a Democratic senator say: “Donald Trump was proper.”
But that’s what Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) is saying now, and it’s all due to TikTookay, the favored video app that Trump tried to ban within the waning months of his presidency.
“As painful as it’s for me to say, if Donald Trump was proper and we might’ve taken motion then, that’d have been a heck of quite a bit simpler than attempting to take motion in November of 2022,” Warner instructed Recode. “The sooner we chew the bullet, the higher.”
Warner is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and his issues with TikTookay are greater than shared by his Republican counterpart, committee vice chair Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Rubio’s been sounding the alarm about TikTookay since 2019 — earlier than Trump, even — and he’s nonetheless doing it now. He recently co-authored an op-ed within the Washington Post that known as for the app to be banned, and he’s planning to introduce a invoice that might just do that.
TikTookay seems to be Congress’s subsequent Big Tech goal. The Big Tech antitrust bills that after appeared certain to cross this yr are likely dead. It’s unsure if and the way they’ll be revived within the subsequent Congress. There’s additionally the truth that a few of these Big Tech firms aren’t fairly so massive anymore, which makes it tougher to make the argument that they’re massively highly effective and dominant firms that may solely be curbed by way of focused laws. But the TikTookay risk is one thing either side would possibly be capable to agree on.
That scrutiny isn’t restricted to the legislative department. The Biden administration hasn’t gone so far as its predecessor, however this previous September, it issued an govt order that appears very a lot aimed on the firm. Meanwhile, Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr can’t cease speaking concerning the risks he believes TikTookay poses, calling for Google and Apple to ban it from their app shops and saying he thinks the federal government ought to ban TikTookay (Carr doesn’t have the authority to order any of these issues, nevertheless). Certain components of the federal government — together with branches of the navy — have already banned staff from having TikTookay on their telephones in any respect.
But TikTookay’s most urgent concern proper now might be the investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency group that evaluations international investments within the United States for nationwide safety points. CFIUS is taking a look at ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly, which it then mixed with its personal TikTookay app to turn out to be what it’s right this moment. TikTookay is reportedly attempting to succeed in an settlement with CFIUS that might enable it to proceed to function within the US, but it surely hasn’t gotten there but. CFIUS can and has blocked or unwound acquisitions earlier than. It might do it once more. So despite the fact that Trump is not in energy, TikTookay nonetheless faces the identical risk of being kicked out of the United States or compelled to be divested from its father or mother firm.
What did TikTookay do to incur the wrath of DC? It all comes all the way down to knowledge and China.
“This was the entity that hacked into Equifax and actually collected data on near 150 million Americans,” Warner mentioned. “In a world the place the analogy is ‘knowledge is the brand new oil,’ we must be involved about all this knowledge about American residents ending up within the palms of the Communist Party of China.”
The TikTookay downside
In some ways, it’s a good time to be TikTookay. One of the most well-liked apps on the earth, TikTookay had greater than 1 billion customers as of September 2021 (the latest numbers TikTookay has launched). The app that was as soon as used primarily for making music movies has turn out to be an entire lot extra. Some customers see it as a news source, a community, and even a search engine. Its ad business is rising steadily. It’s attempting to make strikes into music streaming, virtual reality, and shopping. If what its CEOs have to say is to be believed, Silicon Valley sees TikTookay as an actual aggressive risk.
It will not be a good time for for much longer. TikTookay is owned by ByteDance, which relies in China. It isn’t an arm of the Chinese Communist Party, however Chinese legal guidelines say it may be compelled to help the Chinese authorities. That might imply handing all the info its app has collected about American residents to China. And TikTookay collects a lot of data about its customers.
“The Chinese authorities has established clear pathways to empower itself to surveil people, to assemble knowledge from companies, and thru the 2017 [National Intelligence] law, to combination that knowledge on authorities servers,” mentioned Aynne Kokas, director of the University of Virginia’s East Asia Center and creator of the just lately launched e book Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty. “To the diploma to which any of that is taking place is tough to know.”
TikTookay has repeatedly mentioned it isn’t taking place and that it by no means will. It’s additionally tried to distance itself from its Chinese father or mother firm. But these claims have been undermined by current stories that say ByteDance has a great deal of management over TikTookay and its path, that China does have access to US data, and that ByteDance has tried to get location data from a number of Americans by way of their TikTookay accounts. (To these stories, TikTookay has mentioned that the app doesn’t accumulate exact location knowledge and due to this fact couldn’t surveil US customers this manner, and that leaked conversations about Chinese workers getting access to US knowledge had been with reference to determining to show that entry off.)
Warner doesn’t appear satisfied. “There’s been three or 4 examples, simply within the final six months or so, the place these guarantees of ‘don’t fear, American knowledge goes to be saved separate,’” he mentioned. “There’s been examples of, properly, no, it didn’t get saved separate. This group of Chinese engineers obtained to take a look at it.”
These safety considerations have been brewing for years. TikTookay has already been banned from sure authorities gadgets, and payments have been proposed that might make these bans legislation. Trump’s 2020 executive order mentioned TikTookay’s knowledge “probably enable[ed] China to trace the areas of federal workers and contractors, construct dossiers of private data for blackmail, and conduct company espionage.”
But that isn’t the one risk TikTookay’s opponents cite. They additionally worry that TikTookay, directed by the Chinese authorities, will push propaganda or disinformation, which wouldn’t be onerous to do contemplating how TikTookay feeds its customers a lot content material with its “For You” algorithm. It’s additionally not out of the realm of risk that it will do that. A 2019 report confirmed that ByteDance had a listing of banned content material on TikTookay, which included Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and Taiwan. And China has been caught utilizing social media to unfold disinformation or propaganda earlier than (as have many different nations, including the United States). But that was by way of another person’s platform. With TikTookay, China might straight management what’s on the platform and the way it’s distributed. It can’t try this with Facebook or Instagram.
So whereas cybersecurity has gotten a lot of the eye, Lindsay Gorman, the senior fellow for rising applied sciences on the Alliance for Securing Democracy, thinks propaganda, censorship, and disinformation could also be an excellent larger potential downside. It’s additionally tougher to detect.
“Say a handful of American voters in a selected state watches or is engaged by a selected kind of content material,” Gorman mentioned. “Then it’s means simpler to seize your consideration. If they do then determine to place political messages [in your For You page] or amplify sure political content material, they know what grabs you.”
Social media firms like to hold their algorithms secret. TikTookay is not any totally different. So it’s unattainable to know why you’re being proven what you’re being proven, or if it’s being manipulated to make you are feeling or assume a sure means.
Finally, there’s the worry that China will be capable to use TikTookay’s knowledge to energy its AI improvements. That’s a bonus the US gained’t have as a result of its social media apps are banned in China and since there aren’t legal guidelines that might compel social media firms handy over knowledge simply because the federal government desires it.
“They are aggregating actually billions and billions of photos of not simply Americans however folks from around the globe who’re utilizing TikTookay,” Warner mentioned. “That offers them a lot extra knowledge to assist them create instruments that may be utilized within the AI world.”
At least one individual (apart from TikTookay) doesn’t appear to assume the platform poses a lot of a risk to the US, or at the very least a singular one. James Andrew Lewis, director of the strategic applied sciences program on the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in 2020 that TikTookay wasn’t the large nationwide safety risk some had been portray it to be. He feels just about the identical means now. He believes that the info China can get from TikTookay isn’t significantly totally different or extra helpful than what it’s accused of acquiring by way of hacks or can simply buy from knowledge brokers. Pro-Chinese propaganda is not any concern to him, he mentioned, including, “Your common 15-year-old isn’t going to tune right into a video extolling Xi Jinping.”
Where he does see some threat is that China might use TikTookay to censor, manipulate, or distribute disinformation.
“But the query is, is there a suitable stage of threat that might let TikTookay proceed to function?” Lewis mentioned.
The TikTookay answer
While some have come round to considering Trump was proper to need to ban TikTookay, they don’t essentially agree with how he tried to do it. Courts didn’t agree both, and blocked his August 2020 executive order that might have compelled ByteDance to promote TikTookay or be banned. But it by no means made it to an precise trial, as Biden took workplace and revoked the chief order.
Republican leaders have criticized President Biden for not being as robust as Trump on TikTookay and showing to help the platform by reaching out to a few of its greatest influencers. But the Biden administration isn’t going straightforward on TikTookay, both. Biden recently issued an govt order increasing the definition of nationwide safety for the needs of CFIUS evaluations to incorporate knowledge and applied sciences essential to “shield United States technical management.” It doesn’t straight deal with TikTookay, but it surely definitely contains it.
CFIUS, by the best way, has been reviewing ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly for a number of years now. CFIUS doesn’t touch upon ongoing investigations, however TikTookay mentioned in an announcement to Recode that “we won’t touch upon the specifics of confidential discussions with the US authorities, however we’re assured that we’re on a path to totally fulfill all cheap US nationwide safety considerations.”
To that finish, TikTookay is currently trying to wall US knowledge off from China to fulfill CFIUS’s considerations in an effort it’s dubbed “Project Texas.” That would hold what’s thought-about “protected” knowledge on US customers on US-based servers run by Oracle, with controls over who has entry to it.
TikTookay has additionally been attempting to beef up its presence in DC to raised make its case to lawmakers. ByteDance’s spending on federal lobbyists has steadily grown through the years, from simply $270,000 in 2019 to $5.2 million in 2021 — and it’s on monitor to surpass that in 2022. It recently introduced on Jamal Brown, who labored for the Biden administration and was the press secretary for Biden’s presidential run, to handle its coverage communications within the US. It additionally sent representatives to testify earlier than congressional panels in 2021 and 2022 after refusing to take action in 2019.
A deal between CFIUS and TikTookay has reportedly been imminent for weeks now, but it surely hasn’t occurred but. There are doubts that something in need of forcing ByteDance to unload TikTookay would assure that China can’t entry person knowledge or do something about considerations over pushing propaganda and disinformation.
“I do know there have been good-faith negotiations occurring between the Justice Department and TikTookay,” Warner mentioned. “But if you happen to can’t discover a strategy to get the sure in two years …” He added that he’s open to the chance that TikTookay can work one thing out that might alleviate his considerations with TikTookay, however didn’t sound too hopeful that it might occur. “You’ve obtained a giant hill to climb.”
These issues might be solved in a short time if ByteDance had been to unload TikTookay, however that doesn’t appear to be an choice. The Chinese authorities would have to approve such a transfer, and consultants say that’s impossible.
“The Chinese authorities loves TikTookay,” Lewis mentioned, mentioning that it’s the one social media app from China that’s been profitable outdoors of the nation. “The Chinese authorities will shield it.”
As for FCC Commissioner Carr’s public statements in opposition to TikTookay, the corporate has mentioned he “has no function in or direct information of” its negotiations with the federal government, and “seems to be expressing his private views.”
Warner and Rubio additionally co-authored a letter to the Federal Trade Commission in July asking it to analyze TikTookay, which the FTC might be doing now (it doesn’t make ongoing investigations public).
A legislation — just like the one Rubio says he’ll quickly introduce — might ban TikTookay, assuming it’s truly handed, which is all the time a giant uncertainty, even with bipartisan settlement. But some consider that focusing solely on TikTookay gained’t repair the surroundings that has helped it turn out to be a privateness and disinformation risk within the first place.
“Addressing TikTookay alone won’t remedy the issue of Chinese mis- and disinformation within the US social media panorama,” mentioned Kokas, who would additionally wish to see a privateness legislation that protects Americans’ knowledge on all apps, not simply those primarily based in China. Congress hasn’t been able to cross a client digital privateness legislation which may higher shield Americans’ knowledge, whilst different nations — together with China — have for his or her residents.
“One cause we’re on this mess is as a result of we’ve been unable to enact a privateness legislation for 25 years,” Lewis mentioned. “There’s a giant downside with social media. TikTookay’s a small a part of that.”
While the federal government tries to determine issues out, TikTookay continues to develop and additional entrench itself in America, with tens of hundreds of thousands of customers on this nation who love and use it on a regular basis. It’s onerous to see them letting go of their favourite app at this level — if anybody ever truly tries to make them.