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TikTok's User Data Security Becomes a Political Issue
by
Posted On September 15, 2020
TikTok is a smashing success—it is “one of the most popular social platforms among Generation Z [with] more than 2.3 billion all-time downloads, and 100 million users in the US alone.” Earlier this year, TikTok was able to surpass Facebook and WhatsApp to be the most downloaded nongaming app. Sophie Haigney writes in The Guardian that TikTok is the perfect app for the “splintered attention span” that has become a fact of life for many during the COVID-19 pandemic. TikTok allows anyone to create “quick-cut videos, usually 15- to 60-seconds long, often accompanied by short clips of frenetic music and visual effects. … It’s charming and cringeworthy and has a directness that is unlike the flattened experience of social media we’ve become used to.” To Haigney, TikTok “doesn’t distract so much as reflect the conditions back to us. TikToks are often compelling precisely because they capture the experience of isolation—the creative ingenuity that can come of it; the drive to entertain ourselves and others; the desire for a tenuous connection to a generalised world.”

THE ADMINISTRATION TAKES ACTION

Despite the platform’s popularity, the current presidential administration is very concerned about the relationship between TikTok and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Reuters notes that the administration has issued two executive orders on the matter of TikTok’s potential threat to national security, reporting the following:

President Donald Trump ordered ByteDance on [Aug. 14] to divest the U.S. operations of its video-sharing app TikTok within 90 days. … [This] move comes on top of an executive order he issued [on Aug. 6] that would prohibit certain transactions with TikTok unless ByteDance divests it within 45 days. … The new order adds to pressure for ByteDance to divest TikTok, and legally buttresses the U.S. government’s crackdown on the Chinese-owned social media app. It authorizes U.S. officials to inspect TikTok and ByteDance’s books and information systems to ensure the safety of personal data while the sale talks are ongoing.

As of this writing, multiple news sources are reporting that Oracle may have won the bidding for TikTok. More details will follow in the coming days; however, whatever deal is proposed will need government approval. Oracle making the purchase may "salvage [this] social-media sensation that has been caught in the middle of a geopolitical standoff," according to The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. government began an investigation into ByteDance last fall when “a national security review of TikTok owner Beijing ByteDance Technology Co’s $1 billion acquisition of U.S. social media app Musical.ly” was initiated. Also last fall, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked for a national security probe in a letter to Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence, questioning “TikTok’s data-collection practices and whether the app adheres to censorship rules directed by the Chinese government that could limit what U.S. users see.”

THE RESPONSE

TikTok filed a complaint in U.S. federal court arguing that the Aug. 6 executive order “has the potential to strip the rights of [the TikTok] community without any evidence to justify such an extreme action, and without any due process. We strongly disagree with the Administration’s position that TikTok is a national security threat and we have articulated these objections previously.” TikTok asserts that “the Administration ignored our extensive efforts to address its concerns, which we conducted fully and in good faith even as we disagreed with the concerns themselves.”

Many legal and political groups are supporting TikTok. “It’s really an attempt to fragment the internet and the global information society along US and Chinese lines, and shut China out of the information economy,” Milton Mueller, founder of the Internet Governance Project, remarks in Barron’s. Internet advocates see the action as a troubling development that must be giving Facebook and other social platforms concern. Casey Newton notes for The Verge, “It seems like a long shot, but a court could theoretically block Trump’s executive order. Short of that, it could grant ByteDance more time to divest the company—which it might need, given the sheer technical complexity of unwinding TikTok from the mothership.”

GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES

In August, TikTok announced its first data center in Europe; however, thus far, there seems to be no immediate governmental plans to open any inquiries about operations there. The company also recently announced a deal with the New York Yankees that is intended to attract younger audiences to the team by offering behind-the-scenes programming with players and customized experiences through the Yankees’ TikTok account. In July, TikTok rolled out the Creator Fund, a program “to help support ambitious creators who are seeking opportunities to foster a livelihood through their innovative content.” 

A BATTLE FOR MARKET DOMINANCE

An August editorial on TikTok in the Los Angeles Times reflects that “while new, non-Chinese ownership would remove some privacy and security concerns, it would also highlight the weaknesses in U.S. law and the ongoing vulnerability of smartphone app users.” It continues, “The president’s ability to threaten the livelihood of a U.S.-based and U.S.-managed company without anything approaching due process is chilling. Yet there are real concerns about TikTok’s data collection practices and its current owner—concerns strong enough to have prompted both houses of Congress to call for the app to be banned on government-issued phones.”

China is no bastion of free internet communication. It actively blocks Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Even the government’s approved Weibo and WeChat apps are now under tighter censorship. Although podcasts remain a key Chinese social media platform, governmental scrutiny is constant.

The Los Angeles Times editorial warns, “TikTok users shouldn’t kid themselves about the privacy consequences of a change to U.S. ownership, however. There is no federal law protecting the privacy of user data, other than a broad requirement that companies not mislead the public about their data practices. Hence the transformation of the internet into a rapacious collector of personal information, which is then used as currency by third parties.”

Election years are always contentious, and this year, Mike Patton at Forbes sees “a never-ending cycle of political discord,” making these issues something we will all need to follow. “But it’s not productive to pine for a utopian internet that never really existed,” Shira Ovide writes in a recent New York Times article. “When technologists lament the fracturing of the internet world, I wonder if what they’re really mourning is the fracturing of the world, period.”


Nancy K. Herther, recently retired from the University of Minnesota, has been following technology and information trends since the 1970s.

Email Nancy K. Herther

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