So far, the Texas program has appeared to be primarily a geographic exercise that seems to address concerns over the Chinese government’s access to Americans’ personal information. But it doesn’t address other ways China could weaponize the platform, such as tweaking TikTok’s algorithm to increase exposure to divisive content, or tweaking the platform to sow or encourage disinformation campaigns.
Adam Siegel, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told BuzzFeed News that the Chinese government’s influence on TikTok’s algorithm is more pressing than a data breach. “I’ve never seen a particularly good argument that the Chinese can get things from TikTok data that they can’t get from hundreds of other sources,” he said. But he did point to examples of the Chinese Communist Party’s use of technology to distort digital discourse, including TikTok’s previous censorship of speech that harmed China’s “national honor” and the 2020 attempt by a China-based Zoom employee to sabotage a video conference plaza commemorating Tiananmen Square. massacre.
TikTok vehemently denies allegations that it censors speech critical of China today. Members of TikTok’s trust and safety team, which sets and enforces content policy for the company, describe it as relatively well insulated from ByteDance. Compared with other employees interviewed by BuzzFeed News, employees said Trust & Safety employees had less frequent contact with Beijing and clearer reporting lines, and said TikTok’s Trust & Safety practices were similar to those used by U.S. tech giants. Still, problems with the reporting structure stand out: Like other top TikTok officials, its head of trust and safety reports to TikTok’s CEO, who reports to ByteDance as TikTok’s corporate owner. Lewis said that as long as ByteDance stops lowering the pressure, there is an “upper limit” for TikTok to distance itself from the Chinese government.
During the same hearing, Sen. Martha Blackburn asked Beckman whether ByteDance employees could use TikTok’s algorithm. Beckman, who did not directly answer the question, said U.S. user data is held in the United States. Blackburn also asked if there are programmers, product developers and data teams working for TikTok in China. Beckman confirms that there is.
Lawmakers outside the U.S. have also expressed concern about TikTok’s ties to China. In June 2020, the Indian government banned TikTok, WeChat and more than 50 other Chinese apps after clashes on the India-China border killed 20 Indian soldiers. India’s regulator, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, said the apps “stealed and secretly transferred” Indian user data to data centers outside India. In August 2020, Australian intelligence agencies began investigating whether TikTok posed a security threat to the country. In September 2021, the Irish Data Protection Commission began investigating how TikTok transferred user data to countries outside the European Union.
The similarities between regulatory concerns about TikTok and China in different countries underscore the potential importance of the Texas project. If it succeeds in the U.S., the project could serve as a roadmap for TikTok in other jurisdictions (perhaps even in India, where it has already been banned). It could also serve as a model for other big companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, which face similar concerns from overseas regulators over the collection of their citizens’ personal information.
Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford-New America DigiChina Project at Stanford University’s Center for Cyber Policy, sees TikTok as a “test case” for lawmakers’ inherent skepticism about foreign companies collecting data on their citizens. Webster, however, said he was optimistic because ByteDance had a lot of incentive to make regulators fully satisfied with TikTok.
“The company is looking for a way to make this really work,” he said. “They’re going to keep trying until they clearly fail because the money on the table is huge.” ●