Limited TikTok ban could augur sweeping changes

Revelations the app’s parent company spied on journalists could help the push for tougher restrictions.
By Alex Willemyns
2022.12.23
Limited TikTok ban could augur sweeping changes The $1.7 trillion spending bill passed by the Senate on Thursday includes a law banning the installation of TikTok on federal government devices.
Credit: Associated Press

UPDATED AT 2:44 p.m. ET ON 12-23-2022

A new ban on TikTok's use on U.S. government devices may only be the start of congressional prohibitions against the Chinese social media app, with lawmakers from both parties angling for more decisive action against what they say represents a national security threat.

The $1.7 trillion spending bill, which funds the federal government to September 2023, was passed by the House of Representatives today, after it had won Senate approval on Thursday morning. The package includes a law that prohibits the installation of TikTok on federal government devices.

But revelations this week that employees at TikTok’s Chinese parent, ByteDance, used the app to track the physical movements of some of its users, including two journalists, may add momentum to efforts in Congress to pass even more restrictions on the app’s use. 

When he introduced a bill to ban TikTok entirely in the United States earlier this month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) accused TikTok and its parent company ByteDance of “collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults” in order “to spy” on them on Beijing’s behalf.

“We know it’s used to manipulate feeds and influence elections,” Rubio said. “We know it answers to the People’s Republic of China. There is no more time to waste on meaningless negotiations with a CCP-puppet company. It is time to ban Beijing-controlled TikTok for good.”

Tracking journalists

The New York Times and other outlets reported yesterday that a ByteDance internal investigation found four employees had accessed the IP addresses and other data of two reporters and a small circle of people linked to the journalists. The goal was to uncover the source of suspected leaks about the company.

ByteDance said the four employees involved – two of whom worked in China and two in the U.S. – had been fired.

Well before these latest revelations, TikTok had been criticized for, among other things, scraping data from users’ clipboards, tracking locations, and collecting browsing data from other apps, which FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress could be used to develop individual profiles for espionage purposes. National security experts have cited TikTok as a particular threat due to the fact ByteDance is subject to the Chinese Communist Party’s orders.

Democrats, including Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have also raised concerns about the app’s ties to, and origins in, China’s extensive surveillance state.

“If your country uses Huawei, if your kids are on TikTok, if your population uses WeChat as a social media platform, the ability for China to have undue influence is, I think, a much greater challenge and a much more immediate threat than any kind of actual, armed conflict,” Warner told The Sydney Morning Herald in October.

“China having this kind of technology domination in a number of countries ought to scare the heck out of us because we’ve seen the kind of Orwellian surveillance state they’ve already created within China.”

A 'political gesture'

TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter declined to comment on the prospects of more widespread bans being enacted by Congress next year, but criticized the banning of the app on government devices.

“We're disappointed that Congress has moved to ban TikTok on government devices — a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests — rather than encouraging the administration to conclude its national security review,” Oberwetter said in an email. 

She noted that TikTok was in talks with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to move more operations to an arm’s length from its Chinese parent company, which she said would “meaningfully address any security concerns that have been raised.” The committee reviews foreign investments in the U.S. for security risks. 

“These plans have been developed under the oversight of our country's top national security agencies — plans that we are well underway in implementing — to further secure our platform in the United States, and we will continue to brief lawmakers on them,” Oberwetter said.

Reason for concern

But security experts question how much trust should be placed in TikTok’s assurances that the data of U.S. citizens is being siloed from the servers of a parent company under the thumb of Beijing authorities. 

It’s a square that could be hard to circle for TikTok, said Sameer Patil, a professor at the University of Utah and user privacy expert.

“In general, lawmakers ought to be concerned about any app or service over which they might have limited jurisdiction, not just to regulate their operation but also to enforce laws and regulations and perform meaningful oversight,” Patil told Radio Free Asia.

He noted while many U.S.-owned social media apps also had questionable privacy practices, “if these are companies headquartered in the United States, the U.S. government has the jurisdiction to regulate their operations, demand transparency, and control what they do.”

“It’s the connection to the Chinese parent company that is outside the jurisdiction of the United States that’s really the crux of the matter.”

ENG_CHN_TikTok_ban_12222022.2.jpg
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., [right] says he believes the status quo is untenable, with U.S. authorities currently unable to police how the app was being used by Beijing to surveil Americans and control information flows. Credit: Associated Press file photo

Call for changes

Lawmakers across the aisle have already said extensive changes to TikTok’s operations are needed in order to avoid a complete ban.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) on Monday told a Chicago radio station he backed the Biden administration’s ongoing talks with TikTok to find a compromise, but said a change in ownership may be needed.

“You don’t have to necessarily ban TikTok,” he said. “But if TikTok is going to operate in the United States, the operations that occur here should be owned and controlled either by Americans or by allies.”

Krishnamoorthi said he believed the status quo was untenable, with U.S. authorities currently unable to police how the app was being used by Beijing to surveil Americans and control information flows.

“ByteDance is required to share user data on any of its 1 billion active users worldwide, including the 140 million Americans that use it, with the Chinese Communist Party, and when they do so they’re required not to disclose that they did so,” Krishnamoorthi said.

“ByteDance has actually had plans to surveil Americans using TikTok for undisclosed reasons unrelated to advertising,” the Illinois lawmaker said. “TikTok has also censored references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, criticism of the treatment of Uyghurs in China.”

Censorship complaints

TikTok’s censoring of anything disliked by Beijing has long been known, with references to Tibetan independence, Falun Gong and criticism of the Chinese communist system also scrubbed from TikTok feeds, a fact company executives have proved reluctant to talk about.

Asked on Wednesday by CNN’s Jake Tapper whether he acknowledged China was putting Uyghurs in concentration camps, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy, would not answer. A U.N. report in August said the persecution of Uyghurs may amount to “crimes against humanity.”

“That’s not what I focus on,” Beckerman said. “I’m not here to be the expert on human rights violations.”

Still, the TikTok algorithm’s censorship is only a secondary concern amid the growing calls for a U.S.-wide ban for national security purposes.

With lawmakers breathing down their backs, the job of TikTok executives is now to prove to U.S. regulators its promise that U.S. user data “does not leave the United States,” said Patil from the University of Utah. 

“If they are able to provide the necessary transparency to verify that claim from the points of view of business operations as well as technical implementation on the backend, that might help,” he said. “Another option is to create a separate company based in the United States that is not connected in any way to an entity based in China.”

This story has been updated to include today's approval of the spending bill by the House of Representatives.

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