TikTok has become the runaway hit app of social media. Just last year, the app reached one billion monthly active users, overtaking Facebook in screen time, internet traffic, and influencer marketing. Young people are more likely to catch a rising comedy star, dancer, or singer on TikTok than anywhere else. It deserves every bit of its success for building an incredibly appealing service.
And yet, there’s a problem with TikTok that we can’t ignore: its Chinese ownership and the role that the Chinese government likely plays in how it’s operated.
Over the past several months, we’ve learned just how much access the Chinese government has to U.S. data and content on TikTok. Leaked internal audio exposed that some Beijing-based engineers have near comprehensive admin privileges as well as backdoor access to user data once thought to be private. U.S. executives have quit TikTok en masse over concerns that the app’s Chinese parent company has undue influence over decision-making. And last year, the Chinese government took a stake and a seat on ByteDance’s board, allowing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to appoint a board director.
We also know that the Chinese government has an overwhelming interest in accessing American data. Several years ago, the CCP orchestrated one of the largest hacks of government data in U.S. history. Their target wasn’t the Pentagon or even the CIA. Their sights were set on the Office of Personnel Management, the government agency where data on all federal employees is stored.
That hack targeted the private data of more than 21 million people. It was a serious breach of international sovereignty that threatened the possibility of retaliation, and it required a sophisticated attack. Now imagine if the Chinese government had immediate access to data from 80 million American users, with no breach of U.S. government security required to access those records. That’s TikTok.
On top of privacy concerns is the issue of information warfare: a Chinese company has ownership of an app that gets more views from American teens than any other app in the world. The CCP has a history of using every tool at its disposal to spread pro-Chinese content online. Earlier this year, China used a well-documented network of bots and fake accounts to push its narrative of hosting the perfect Olympic games and a united country.
With the keys to one of the world’s largest social media platforms, the CCP not only has the opportunity to share mis- and disinformation, but also to enforce selective content moderation that promotes a favorable view of China while taking an increasingly aggressive international posture.
The good news is that the Biden Administration is now focused on addressing the TikTok question. But the worrying question is that the solutions under discussion may only be window dressing.
According to reports, the deal would require Oracle to police TikTok’s algorithms for propaganda. But Oracle will earn millions of dollars a year from this deal, a strong financial incentive to overlook wrongdoing.
The deal also would mandate that U.S. user data reside on U.S. servers. But recent reporting by Buzzfeed made clear that this does not impede the Chinese government, which can still access user data through pressuring the company’s Chinese employees.
In past congressional hearings, Senators have asked TikTok whether the Chinese government has ever “requested” U.S. user data. But that’s the wrong question. China doesn’t need to ask; they come in through the back door.
And of course, data access rules don’t solve the propaganda concern.
When Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, the U.S. and Europe swiftly shut down RT, Russia’s propaganda network. In hindsight, it was embarrassing that we ever allowed RT to operate in the U.S. for so long. We would never have allowed the Soviet Union to own a U.S. TV station during the Cold War.
This is why a growing number of critics are saying that while TikTok should be allowed to keep operating in the U.S., the Biden Administration can’t allow it to remain under ownership that reports to the CCP.
Even though moving to U.S. ownership would undoubtedly make life easier for TikTok’s U.S. employees, a forced divestiture would admittedly be both an aggressive step and politically fraught.
TikTok’s keys –to both user data and content moderation practices– are crown jewels in China’s collection of modern political weapons, a fact which makes Biden’s work to negotiate an agreement difficult. There is perhaps no deal that would guarantee U.S. user privacy and a propaganda-free platform that the CCP would allow ByteDance to accept.
But the Chinese government itself has banned TikTok, undercutting any argument it might make about a U.S.-forced sale being discriminatory. For all the concern about Russian election interference in the 2016 election, the Chinese information threat – potentially conducted through TikTok – could very well be the next foreign interference crisis. And for all the likely worries about upsetting American TikTok users, the Biden Administration can say it wants to preserve the app – just with American owners.
We shouldn’t sit on our hands as TikTok’s U.S. use and influence grows. In a world of growing cyber threats, TikTok’s Chinese ownership is a problem that the White House can’t afford to swipe away.
Adam Kovacevich is the founder of Chamber of Progress, a center-left tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future. Corporate partners for Chamber of Progress include Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook. Kovacevich has worked at the intersection of tech and politics for 20 years, leading public policy at Google and Lime and serving as a Democratic Hill aide.