To date, Venture Texas seems to be primarily an train in geography, one which appears well-positioned to deal with issues concerning the Chinese language authorities accessing Individuals’ private info. Nevertheless it doesn’t deal with different ways in which China may weaponize the platform, like tweaking TikTok algorithms to extend publicity to divisive content material, or adjusting the platform to seed or encourage disinformation campaigns.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Our on-line world Coverage program on the Council on Overseas Relations, informed BuzzFeed Information that the Chinese language authorities’s affect on TikTok’s algorithms is a extra urgent concern than information exfiltration. “I’ve never seen a particularly good argument about what the Chinese could get from TikTok data that they can’t get from hundreds of other sources,” he mentioned. However he did level to examples of the Chinese language Communist Social gathering utilizing expertise to warp digital discourse, together with TikTok’s earlier censorship of speech dangerous to China’s “national honor,” and a 2020 try by a China-based Zoom worker to disrupt video conferences commemorating the Tiananmen Sq. bloodbath.
TikTok vehemently denies accusations that it censors speech essential of China at present. And members of TikTok’s Belief & Security crew, which makes and enforces content material insurance policies for the corporate, portrayed it as comparatively nicely insulated from ByteDance affect. Staff described Belief & Security staff as having much less frequent contact with Beijing, and clearer traces of reporting, than different workers that BuzzFeed Information spoke to — and described TikTok’s Belief & Security practices as much like these adopted by US-based tech giants. Nonetheless, the query of reporting construction looms massive: Like different senior TikTok officers, its head of Belief & Security experiences to TikTok’s CEO, who experiences to ByteDance as TikTok’s company proprietor. And so long as the buck stops with ByteDance, “there is a ceiling” to how a lot TikTok can distance itself from the Chinese language authorities, Lewis mentioned.
US lawmakers have made clear that their issues about TikTok transcend the place information is saved. In a 2019 tweet, Sen. Chuck Schumer mentioned that beneath Chinese language legislation, TikTok and ByteDance “can be compelled to cooperate with intelligence work controlled by China’s Communist Party.” At an October 2021 Senate listening to, TikTok’s Head of Public Coverage for the Americas Michael Beckerman testified that TikTok’s privateness coverage permits it to share the knowledge it collects (together with US person information) with ByteDance. He declined to reply questions from Sen. Ted Cruz about whether or not the coverage permits TikTok to share that information with Beijing ByteDance Expertise, one other ByteDance subsidiary that’s partially owned by the Chinese language Communist Social gathering.
On the similar listening to, Sen. Marsha Blackburn requested Beckerman whether or not ByteDance workers had entry to TikTok’s algorithm. Beckerman, in a roundabout way answering the query, mentioned that US person information is saved within the US. Blackburn additionally requested whether or not there are programmers, product builders, and information groups in China engaged on TikTok. Beckerman confirmed that there are.
Lawmakers past the US have additionally raised issues about TikTok’s relationship with China. In June 2020, the Indian authorities banned TikTok, WeChat, and greater than 50 different Chinese language apps after a conflict on the India–China border that killed 20 Indian troopers. India’s regulatory physique, the Ministry of Electronics and Info Expertise, alleged that the apps had been “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting” Indian person information to information facilities exterior of India. In August 2020, intelligence companies in Australia started investigating whether or not TikTok poses a safety menace to the nation. In September 2021, Eire’s Knowledge Safety Fee opened an investigation into how TikTok transfers person information to international locations exterior the EU.
The similarities between totally different international locations’ regulatory issues about TikTok and China emphasize the potential significance of Venture Texas. If it succeeds within the US, the undertaking could function a roadmap for TikTok in different jurisdictions (maybe even in India, the place it has been banned). It could additionally function a mannequin for different massive corporations, like Amazon, Fb, and Google, which face related issues from abroad regulators about accumulating their residents’ private info.
Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford–New America DigiChina Venture on the Stanford College Cyber Coverage Middle, sees TikTok as “a guinea pig” for lawmakers’ inherent skepticism about international corporations accumulating their residents’ information. Nonetheless, Webster says he’s optimistic, as a result of ByteDance has a heavy incentive to get regulators absolutely snug with TikTok.
“This is a company that is looking for a way for this to actually work,” he mentioned. “They’re going to keep trying until there’s an obvious defeat, because the amount of money on the table is enormous.”