Division deepens in the US on TikTok future

By Yasir Habib Khan | Gwadar Pro Apr 5, 2023

Editor's Note: The author is Yasir Habib Khan, President of the Institute of International Relations and Media Research (IIRMR). The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of Gwadar Pro.

The US irrationality on the likely ban on TikTok breeds deeper divisions in America as lawmakers and the youth of the United States of America do not buy the White House’ “unfounded narrative of fear of cyber espionage” on TikTok.

The White House alleges that TikTok may share US users’ data with the Chinese government for spying purposes that will risk US sovereignty. But it is a claim that is not even digested by Western media. According to a poll published in US media, around 54 percent of daily users of TikTok in America oppose the ban on TikTok. 

The US has ballooned to 150 million active TikTok users. Media reported that a TikTok ban may uniquely upset Millennial and Gen Z voters, who are still underrepresented in the US Congress. Unsurprisingly, TikTok is vastly more popular with younger Americans, with 59 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds using the app, compared with 46 percent of those ages 35 to 49, 29 percent of people ages 50 to 64, and 13 percent of those 65 and older.  

In a recent interview quoted in Washington Post, Jamaal Anthony Bowman, an American politician and educator serving as the U.S. representative for New York's 16th congressional district since 2021, said, “There is a huge disconnect between lawmakers and many of the new technologies … and with TikTok, it’s easier to just say, ‘Ban it, sell it or let us control it”. Bowman believes fears over potential risks associated with the app have been disproportionate to the available evidence about its vulnerabilities. He has embraced the app, posting his thoughts and the work of Congress and gaining nearly 160,000 followers and 2 million likes. He said that TikTok has helped him reach new constituents, particularly younger ones, who he hadn’t engaged with before through other communication methods. 

Surprisingly, unlike Bowman, many of the lawmakers who questioned TikTok CEO Chew do not have a TikTok account. That lack of familiarity with the app may be part of what’s driven lawmakers toward a ban, Bowman said. 

European media outlet “Politico” mentioned that critics of the cyber espionage argument refer to a 2021 study by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which found that the app did not exhibit the “overtly malicious behavior” that would be expected of spyware.  

Meanwhile a tech researcher and privacy advocate based in Melbourne, Australia Asher Wolf asserted in a media interview that “the noise the Americans are making about TikTok must be seen less as a sincere desire to protect citizens from surveillance and influence operations, and more as an attempt to ring-fence and consolidate national control over social media”. 

During an interaction with Naeem Akhtar, CEO of DMT, a digital social media company in Pakistan, a point was highlighted that the US ban on TikTok would do nothing to stem the rampant sale of personal information and metadata that is collected by all social media companies, including those based in the US. US tech companies’ relatively lax privacy norms remain a sticking point in Europe, which has much stronger data protections, he added. “If politicians and lawmakers really were interested in protecting people from ‘evil’ or ‘nefarious’ tech companies, they should instead focus on regulating the entire tech and social media industries rather than just focusing on one company,” he clarified.  

During a five-hour grilling of the chief executive of TikTok, United States lawmakers unilaterally blamed TikTok for allegedly spying on Americans. They did not mention how the US government itself uses US tech companies that effectively control the global internet to spy on everyone else. 

Frankly speaking, apart from such support within media houses in Europe and the West in favor of TikTok operation in the US, there are many other solid reasoning that speaks volume against the sense being attempted by the White House to clap wings or bury TikTok. But digital wizards believe that it seems that the US has prepared a mind to cripple the social media App.  

For instance, the TikTok administration has been trying to address the misgivings and reservations being raised by the US government. It has adapted its content moderation since 2019 and regularly releases a transparency report about what it removes. The company has also touted a “transparency center” that opened in the U.S. in July 2020 and one in Ireland in 2022. It has also said it will comply with new EU content moderation rules, the Digital Services Act, which will request that platforms give access to regulators and researchers to their algorithms and data. 

On the allegation of data shared with the Chinese government, TikTok says it has never given data to the Chinese government and would decline if asked to do so. Strictly speaking, ByteDance, the mother company of TikTok, is incorporated in the Cayman Islands, which TikTok argues would shield it from legal obligations to assist Chinese agencies.  

Another argument is that ByteDance is owned merely 20 percent by its founders and Chinese investors. While 60 percent is owned by global investors, and 20 percent by employees. The around 60 percent share of global investors manifests the fact that even if China asks for data, it will be repelled because bigger shareholders hold sway in policymaking.  

The TikTok company has also unveiled two separate plans to safeguard data. In the U.S., Project Texas is a $1.5 billion plan to build a wall between the U.S. subsidiary and its Chinese owners. The €1.2 billion European version, named Project Clover, would move most of TikTok's European data onto servers in Europe. 

It’s worth pointing out that TikTok and its mother company “ByteDance” is not the only one being accused of privacy breach and spying gesture. Uber and Facebook have been accused of similar actions over the years, and Microsoft searched a French blogger’s Hotmail account in 2012 to find out which Microsoft employee was sending him trade secrets. None of those services faced a potential nationwide ban over it, but none of them were owned by a Chinese company, either. 

Seemingly every Big Tech company is facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny these days, but TikTok faces opposition that its peers don’t. At a time when US-China relations aren’t great, TikTok’s popularity is a threat to America’s technological superiority, especially when it comes to the internet. But US lawmakers are much more likely to point to the perceived threat to national security, believing that the Chinese government is using the app to spy on Americans.  

ByteDance is also working hard trying to convince detractors that it doesn’t take marching orders from China and that it wouldn’t give the Chinese government US user data or influence US users. The company briefed think tanks in late January and gave journalists (including Recode) a tour of its new Transparency and Accountability center in February.  

Before Biden, Trump issued his executive order proclaiming TikTok to be a national security threat and, using the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, ordering it to be sold to an American company or banned within 45 days. This obviously didn’t happen: President Joe Biden eventually rescinded the order, which was controversial, to say the least, leaving it to CFIUS to make a deal with ByteDance. 

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress on March 23 and asserted the company is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government, as reported by the Washington Post. He touted “Project Texas,” an initiative by the company that he said works to protect U.S. user data from "unauthorized foreign access."   

Currently, TikTok is still available in the U.S., though some government employers and schools around the nation have banned it on their devices. That includes the U.S. government, which banned federal employees from using the app on government-issued phones, and an array of states that have enacted a similar ban on state-owned devices 

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