The clock is ticking on TikTok

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

In the preface to “Life After the TikTok Ban,” author Donovan Clifton opens by writing, “TikTok is here to stay for most of us here in the United States.” I beg to differ.  

The book was written in 2021, which in the world of social media technologies is a lifetime ago. Consider what has happened to this Chinese-made social media platform in just the last few days. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the surveillance of American citizens by ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok.  

Reportedly, the investigation centers on whether this Chinese company has been spying on several journalists who cover the technology sector, and an admission by ByteDance that its employees had inappropriately obtained the data of TikTok users. 

Congress is preparing to hear from the chief executive officer (CEO) of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, this week. 

And already the CEO has made a video appeal to TikTok’s 150 million American users and offered up new content guidelines to prevent “deep-fakes,” election interference and security risks, promising to allay concerns about its AI-powered technology.

In just three years, TikTok surpassed its American rivals, garnering 1 billion users. What began as just a lip-synching platform called Musical.ly grew into a multi-billion-dollar empire. 

As Chris Stokel-Walker writes in “TikTok Boom,” “TikTok has mutated into something of a proxy war over the future of this technology we rely on in our everyday lives.”

For proponents of global engagement and cultural diplomacy, as I am, TikTok is an ideal way to share and learn about how others sing, dance and express themselves and their cultures. And competition for Silicon Valley from China is not necessarily a bad thing.

But – and this is a big “but” – there has been little real transparency about the algorithms used for TikTok, and how data is being collected, stored, scraped, used and disseminated. Investigative reporters and authors have tried, unsuccessfully over the years, to answer the question: Does TikTok, a private Chinese company owned by ByteDance, share data with the Chinese government and, if so, to what end?  

President Biden, who met with TikTok executives during his presidential campaign, pushed a plan to require TikTok’s Chinese owners to divest from the app. Simply banning TikTok may sound easy, but it hasn’t driven the company out of business despite repeated attempts.

First came the assault on TikTok by former President Trump, who in 2020 went to war against the social media app, in part because of national security concerns about China getting hold of TikTok user data and using it against the United States.

The Senate banned the use of TikTok by federal employees on government devices. Individual U.S. states, many of them led by Republican governors, began to take matters into their own hands.

Gov. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) enacted a ban on TikTok across state government-issued devices, blaming China for “manipulating the American people.” Other states started instituting or considering bans based on data security. Indiana is suing the platform for pushing inappropriate content onto children. And some public colleges are banning the app.

In the summer of 2020, TikTok was banned in India, along with 50 other apps. Despite its massive popularity with over 200 million users, the Indian government declared it essentially illegal. (Interestingly, it was just at a time when India and China were squabbling over border issues.)

Afghanistan, under the Taliban, has also banned TikTok, citing its violation of its strict interpretation of Islamic law. Neighboring Pakistan has had an on-again, off-again, relationship with the social media app with bans imposed and then lifted. Bangladesh banned it. Indonesia banned it and then lifted the bans in another back-and-forth approach.

And then there’s China, where TikTok is not allowed at home but its owners are free to distribute its content abroad, if content managers stay within certain unwritten guidelines such as avoiding a focus on controversial topics like Taiwan or Tibet. 

For TikTok to survive, it will have to demonstrate a willingness to do more than just issue vague statements and gloss over details about its data collection. It will have to distance itself from the very country that birthed it and risk alienating the Chinese Communist Party, which views control over the internet as critical to its own security. That is asking a lot. 

The rise of China and Chinese tech is now challenging Silicon Valley at a time of rising geopolitical tensions over Taiwan, Chinese balloons flying over America and ongoing tensions over Ukraine and China’s relationship with Russia, not to mention arguments over the origins of COVID-19 and the degree to which China shared information in those early pandemic days.

For Americans, TikTok reaches a major share of young people who could be turned off by politics if the social media app is banned.

In the end, the answer for America might lie in a broad new look at comprehensive legislation to ensure data security and privacy, like what the Europeans have done. Picking off TikTok is a short-term solution, but there will always be another social media clock ticking.

This post is republished from The Hill.

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