“I would say, there’s an immediate threat, via TikTok, from the Chinese Communist Party, that is the reason, that I believe we need to ban TikTok immediately. It is a national security threat, their access, not just to our data, but the way they have infiltrated….”
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) to Jake Taper, CNN, March 26, 2023
When a ranking member of Congress argues that a social media platform must be banned, the problem must be serious. Members take an oath to defend the Constitution, including the right to free expression that is so essential to democracy. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers must have thought long and hard before issuing such a drastic call.
Unfortunately, Rep. McMorris Rodgers hasn’t. The push to ban TikTok comes only because its owner is a Chinese company, ByteDance. No evidence exists that such ownership itself creates problems of collection, addictiveness, personalized ads, or disinformation – from Beijing or elsewhere. These problems are associated with any social media site that depends on advertising, whatever its ownership.
Rather than “protecting” Americans from the “evil, wicked, mean and nasty” TikTok, US politicians want to “protect” Americans from their own failure to address the problem of data collection and manipulation. They want to protect themselves, at the expense of democracy. In so doing, they play into the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
TikTok entertains. The one billion individuals outside China who watch it every day are evidence that it’s not boring. TikTok markets itself as “The Last Sunny Corner of the Internet” and was the world’s most downloaded app in 2022, offering an endless stream of short videos. Download and leave the rest to the algorithm. The feed is tailored to an individual’s interest – measured by likes, dislikes, and the time spent watching a video. Viewers get drawn in. When they finally tap “exit,” TikTok loads a new video the algorithm thinks they’ll like, testing the user to “Tap Again.” This formula works: the time users spend on TikTok doubles every year. Some 150 million US users now spend 1.5 hours a day on it.
Millions of people — from teen dancers to university professors — make TikTok’s content, using smartphone cameras and simple editing software. All seek a chance to entertain, to be recognized, to be liked — and maybe to earn some money from ads.
It’s simple and successful. Ads are interspersed in a feed that reflects what your own actions say you want to watch. Advertisers know you’ll see them, and TikTok, like all such platforms, isn’t shy about claiming you’ll act on them. TikTok ad revenues spiked by almost 200% to $11.2 billion in 2022, still less than Facebook and YouTube, but on track to surpass them by 2027. It’s not surprising that Facebook hired a major PR firm to raise doubts about TikTok.
One of those doubts is TikTok’s ownership. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. ByteDance is a private firm, founded in China in 2012 by Zhang Yiming and Liang Rubo, but now legally based in the Cayman Islands. Three of its five board members represent big US and European investors. ByteDance also owns Douyin – the version of the app available only in China, where TikTok cannot be used. Douyin is separate by design; China’s ruling Communist Party seeks strict control over content its citizens can see – and a large amount of content available on TikTok (including about Taiwan’s independence and ridiculing President Xi Jinping) would never pass communist censors.
The Chinese regime has recently cracked down on its tech entrepreneurs – most notoriously Jack Ma of Alibaba. ByteDance’s founders are not immune: Zhang Yiming made a Cultural Revolution-style confession in 2018 after the government criticized “inappropriate” material on Douyin, and later stepped down as CEO, ostensibly for private reasons. ByteDance and Douyin, like most firms in China (even foreign-owned), have Communist Party members who are directed to ensure the companies don’t undermine Party control.
It’s a tragedy that Xi’s regime represses its citizens. But it does not mean TikTok presents such a threat that the United States government should follow the Communist Party playbook and ban or restrict TikTok simply because of its Chinese ownership.
TikTok allegedly presents that threat because of the data it has on American citizens, which it passes to the Chinese government. Like many platforms, TikTok hoovers in reams of potentially sensitive data about its users – what they like to watch, when and where they do so, how they portray themselves and other subjects in the videos they upload, what they buy, and what they look at or even type into the in-app browser. Like Facebook and Google, its competitors in the targeted ad space, TikTok uses pixels to track individuals across the web. This information is shared with third parties, including data brokers, aggregators, and others in the targeted advertising space (even competitors Facebook and Google), who may use it to develop a “profile” of a “typical” user that can be traced to a specific individual.
Although this process disturbs many people when they think of it, direct targeted advertising is legal in the United States and the European Union, despite the vaunted General Data Protection Directive. A 2021 detailed technical study found no evidence that TikTok transmits this data – stored on servers in the users’ country – to China. It wouldn’t matter. China could anyway buy the data from data brokers, as US law enforcement agencies apparently do.
If China gets hold of this data on millions of Americans, which many in Congress argue Article 7 of China’s 2017 National Security Law allows it to do (without mentioning the constraints other articles in the same law impose), what then? Some of the data might be of interest – for instance, the location data of a member of Congress or a ranking government official who is doing something he or she would prefer to be kept secret. But those individuals need to worry even if they don’t have TikTok on their phone, as the phone and any of the other apps on it will track them.
It’s worse when China, ByteDance, or TikTok track journalists or regime opponents whom they may want to silence – as an internal ByteDance investigation last year determined had happened. This is horrible. ByteDance publicized its investigation and fired the individuals in the US and in China who abused the TikTok data. But an individual crime, however reprehensible, fails to reach the First Amendment threshold.
The question of China using TikTok data to run influence operations in the United States is serious. Foreign governments, including especially Russia, have used social media successfully to foment discontent and dissent in the US and elsewhere. Beijing has certainly also done so, at least in Taiwan, and is also known for using its Confucius Institutes and other means to promote positive messages about China.
TikTok, like any social media concern, could be a vector for disinformation and ByteDance reportedly tried to use an earlier news aggregator app to boost China’s image in the United States. But the Chinese government openly buys ads in all major newspapers and magazines and can also buy targeted advertising on all social media sites. While TikTok technically can boost specific messages (“heat” them, as it does for advertisers), ironically, it is one of the least likely mediums to find Chinese propaganda. TikTok users are unlikely to spend time watching Xi’s speeches, which after all, are the opposite of entertainment.
The reality of the TikTok threat is far less than US politicians portend. The company needs to deal with political perceptions, and CEO Shou Chew briefed Congress on March 23 on the steps the company will take to ensure it will store information about US users on stored on Oracle servers in America. TikTok committed to be open and transparent to researchers in a way that few platforms have dared.
This openness underscores that the societal problem with TikTok (and other social media platforms) is malign content from its (American, European, and other) users. The complaint will be that the company is not censoring uploaded (“harmful”) content as much as some politicians would like. On the other hand, TikTok will also be accused of taking down (“harmful”) content that some politician (say, a former US President) has posted.
This is the fate of all social media platforms. TikTok may or may not be “good;” in the end, its users should decide. US politicians can – and should – think about reining in the targeted advertising business model that motivates TikTok, Facebook, Google, and far too many others to collect and deal in personal information. But that is a domestic issue, not one about an evil, wicked, mean, and nasty Chinese empire.
Peter Chase is a former US diplomat and now Senior Fellow in the Brussels office German Marshall Fund of the United States. Anda Bologa, a former CEPA James S. Denton Fellow, is now a PhD candidate at the Fordham School of Law.
Corrections were made on April 25, 2023: an earlier version of this piece identified Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers as an author of the RESTRICT Act. Senator Mark Warner introduced the legislation alongside 25 cosponsors.
Bandwidth is CEPA’s online journal dedicated to advancing transatlantic cooperation on tech policy. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.