Wednesday 27 March 2024

Why We Mustn’t Ban TikTok

Thomas Fazi writes:

For the third time in just over a century, the US is, once again, in the grip of a full-blown Red Scare. The home of the “communist threat” may have changed — China rather than the Soviet Union — but the elements are all there: moral panic, paranoia, authoritarianism, repression. This became apparent earlier this month, when Democrats and Republicans, in a rare show of national unity, joined forces to confront one of the gravest threats facing America today. No, not rampant crime, not illegal immigration, not falling living standards — but TikTok.

On March 13, with a resounding majority, the House of Representatives passed a bill calling for a nationwide ban against the hugely popular social media app, used by roughly 170 million Americans. If the bill, which has the White House’s support, is approved by the Senate, TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, will be forced to sell the social media platform to a US-based company or stop operating in the country.

The US lawmakers’ main claim is that TikTok represents a national security threat due to its ties to the Chinese government, which they fear may use the app to access American user data. In this, Beijing’s critics are in good company: just yesterday, the UK and the US accused China of launching a “prolific” campaign of cyberattacks against the West.

It’s worth noting, however, that neither US intelligence nor the bill’s sponsors have produced any evidence that TikTok has ever coordinated with the Chinese government. In interviews and testimony to Congress about the app, leaders of the FBI, CIA and the director of national intelligence have in fact been careful to qualify the national security threat posed by TikTok as purely hypothetical. Indeed, when cybersecurity officials in Connecticut asked the FBI for advice on whether to ban the app on government devices, they were informed that similar bans introduced in other states appeared to be based “on news reports and other open-source information about China in general, not specific to TikTok”.

Upon closer inspection, the US lawmakers’ case looks rather weak. For starters, is TikTok even really a “Chinese app”? The app is owned by TikTok LLC, a limited liability company incorporated in Delaware and based in Culver City, California. The LLC is in turn controlled by TikTok Ltd, which is registered in the Cayman Islands and based both in Los Angeles and Singapore. As it happens, TikTok doesn’t even exist in China, where they use a different version: a sister app called Douyin.

TikTok Ltd, in turn, is owned by ByteDance, which is also incorporated in the Cayman Islands and headquartered in Beijing. But how Chinese is ByteDance itself? Sure, the company was founded in 2012 by Chinese entrepreneurs, and it operates many businesses in China — but roughly 60% of the company is owned by international investors, most of them American, with the remaining shares divided among its founders and Chinese investors (20%) and the company’s own employees (20%), including more than 8,000 Americans. Moreover, ByteDance’s board of directors is comprised of five individuals — three Americans and two Chinese — while the company’s CEO is Singaporean.

As for the Chinese government itself, it owns a 1% stake in ByteDance’s main domestic subsidiary — a legal requirement for all news and information platforms operating in China — and a government official who used to work for China’s internet regulator sits on the subsidiary’s board. This is hardly surprising: everyone knows the internet is heavily censored and controlled in China, and ByteDance’s domestic version of TikTok, Douyin, is no exception. The question is whether the same applies to ByteDance’s global operations outside of China, including TikTok.

As one might expect, the company vehemently denies this — and, as noted, US authorities have so far been unable to produce any evidence that TikTok, to date, has shared its data on American (or other Western) users with the Chinese government, or has censored or otherwise manipulated content on the platform (though some researchers have made this claim). Indeed, to assuage US national security concerns about data privacy — and head off a ban planned via a Trump executive order in 2020 — the company announced a far-reaching initiative known as “Project Texas”.

So far, TikTok has implemented many of the project’s features, including transferring US user data to the cloud infrastructure of Oracle, a US company (with well-known ties to the US intelligence community), and placing dozens of former US government and intelligence officials in key positions at TikTok. These developments, however, have had little impact on the policy debate in the US. Nor has a convincing explanation been provided as to why TikTok would threaten its hugely profitable global operations — its worth is currently estimated at $75 billion.

So why all the fuss? There are various factors at play here, the first of which is cultural and generational. Many US lawmakers are boomers (the average age of Congress is close to 60) who appear to have a rather poor understanding of how these new technologies work. This led to some rather cringeworthy exchanges during the congressional hearing on TikTok, such as Republican congressman Richard Hudson asking whether TikTok could access home Wi-Fi networks, or his colleague Buddy Carter demanding to know whether the app utilised users’ phone cameras to track dilation in their eyes. Several US politicians also displayed a rather staggering ignorance about China itself, such as when the Republican senator Tom Cotton repeatedly asked TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew — a Singaporean — whether he was a member of the Chinese Communist Party (foreigners can’t join the CCP).

It seems fair to assume that such clueless politicians are particularly susceptible to lobbying by groups interested in antagonising TikTok — and China itself — for economic, political or ideological reasons. These range from investors hoping to scoop up TikTok on the cheap, to US tech companies aiming to crush a competitor and those poised to benefit from the militarisation of US-China relations. Jacob Helberg, for instance, is a member of the ultra-hawkish US-China Economic and Security Review Commission who has been instrumental in the renewed legislative fight against TikTok — but also happens to be a policy adviser to Alex Karp, CEO of the defence and intelligence contractor Palantir, which relies heavily on government contracts for AI work, a business that would grow in a tech arms race with China.

Psychological projection also appears to be a factor. After all, the reason many US politicians assume the Chinese government is using TikTok to spy on foreign citizens is arguably because this is what the US has always done with its own tech companies. Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, for example, forces US firms like Google, Meta and Apple to turn over the email, phone and other online communications of users at the request of US intelligence agencies, which, as disclosed by Edward Snowden, has allowed the US government to warrantlessly spy on millions of American and foreign citizens alike. Tellingly, as US lawmakers consider banning TikTok to allegedly protect the privacy of its citizens, they are also weighing the renewal of Section 702, which was set to expire in January this year.

Aside from dubious safety concerns, there’s another reason the bill gained new momentum in recent months. Several conservative activists, tech investors and Jewish organisations have expressed outrage about the amount of pro-Palestinian content on the platform, arguing that TikTok’s algorithm was biased towards Palestine — and coming out in support of the ban. TikTok, for its part, has denied this, noting that content on the platform simply reflects the fact that it has a young user base and “attitudes among young people skewed toward Palestine long before TikTok existed”. What’s probably happening isn’t that TikTok is pushing pro-Palestinian content, but rather that it isn’t suppressing it like other US platforms such as Meta have been accused of doing. Once again, this seems to be a case of projection, given all that we now know about the way in which the US government has, in recent years, coerced and colluded with social media companies to censor certain viewpoints.

Seen in this light, it’s not hard to see why many, including Matt Taibbi, believe that the purpose of the new bill is to further consolidate domestic censorship and control over online information under the guise of national security. As Taibbi has observed, the legislation isn’t so much directed at “foreign adversaries” themselves but rather any “website, desktop application, mobile application, or augmented or immersive technology application” that is “determined by the President to present a significant threat to the National Security of the United States”.

As for the claim that China is using TikTok to somehow “destabilise” American society or push anti-government narratives, this also sounds like a confession. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that as President, Trump signed a covert action order authorising the CIA to use social media to influence and manipulate domestic Chinese public opinion and views on China — and similar American cyber influence programmes are known to exist with regard to other countries as well. More than an issue of Chinese control over TikTok, then, the problem appears to be one of insufficient US control over the platform — despite the fact that, as noted, this is already quite extensive in terms of company staff, ownership and board membership.

Ultimately, however, it’s perhaps fruitless to look for a single overarching reason for the US government’s war on TikTok. At a time of heightened geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, it was inevitable that this contest would spill into the realm of cyberspace as well. Simply put, the “world wide web” — the idea of a single, open, global internet, accessible to everyone around the world — is all but dead. What we have today is an increasingly balkanised replacement — a “splinternet”, as some have called it — where states aren’t simply exercising growing control over their own cyberspace’s physical infrastructure and data but, more worryingly, over the online information their citizens can access. As Western citizens are now discovering, the internet has become yet another terrain for waging global warfare — against foreign adversaries but also, and perhaps even more importantly, against us too.


  1. Remember, China was behind the stuff about Kate Middleton.

    1. I know. They said so in the papers and on the broadcasting networks that started it all.