TikTok in the dock

Whether or not the US bans TikTok, the real issue is the danger presented by all social media platforms as they currently operate, argues Atlantic Council Nonresident Senior Fellow Seth Stodder.

TikTok in the dock

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on March 23, 2023 in Washington DC. (Source: Samuel Corum/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect)

On March 23, 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew made his much-awaited appearance before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  Despite TikTok’s popularity with millions of Americans, it faces growing hostility in Washington, and nothing TikTok’s CEO said seemed to change any minds.  After the hearing, Sen. Mark Warner (DA-VA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committe, and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. John Thune (R-SD), issued a joint statement noting that “[u]nder PRC law, all Chinese companies, including TikTok, whose parent company is based in Beijing, are ultimately required to do the bidding of Chinese intelligence services, should they be called upon to do so.  Nothing we heard from Mr. Chew today assuaged those concerns.”

The Biden administration seems to agree, reportedly telling TikTok’s Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, to sell its stake in the app or face an order banning it in the US.  The administration also has embraced the RESTRICT Act, a bipartisan bill that would give the president additional legal authorities to ban or severely restrict foreign-owned technologies like TikTok.  And the US isn’t alone.  In recent weeks, the EU, the UK, New Zealand, Canada, and others have banned TikTok from government-issued devices, and some are considering total bans.

But will banning TikTok actually make us safer?  And is it worth the cost, most immediately to the 150 million TikTok users in the US?  As noted by US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, “The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under thirty-five, forever.”  On a deeper level, since the end of the Cold War, the US has consistently worked to keep the Internet an open, secure, and interoperable global platform for free expression, regularly rallying other democracies to oppose internet shutdowns by authoritarian regimes.  No doubt, America’s traditionally optimistic vision for the internet has been mugged by the reality of increasingly authoritarian and adversarial regimes like China and Russia.  But without question, a US ban of TikTok based on potential risks and without evidence that TikTok itself has done anything wrong would be a historic shift in policy.

How much of a threat does TikTok truly present?  FBI Director Christopher Wray recently testified that TikTok “screams” of national security concerns – a view shared by other leaders of the intelligence community.  During the March 23 hearing, senators expressed many concerns about the impact of TikTok on teen mental health, the Fentanyl crisis, and other issues, but these are impacts of social media in general, not just TikTok.  What’s so scary about TikTok itself?  

Two interrelated concerns have been raised.  First, some worry TikTok is a vehicle for Chinese espionage, because the app collects data from its users, and its owner, Beijing-based ByteDance, is subject to China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which requires Chinese companies to provide data they possess to China’s intelligence agencies upon request, no matter where that data resides.  There is no evidence that the Chinese government has ever made such a request to ByteDance, but the law is clear – and China’s thirst for data on Americans is even clearer, as evidenced by its cyber hacks of Equifax, Anthem, and the US Office of Personnel Management, among others.  At some point, China could require ByteDance to turn over its data, including all data collected from US users of TikTok.

But don’t all social media platforms (and many other companies with internet presences) collect data on customers, analyze that data, and sell it to advertisers or other third parties?  And some even sell data to data brokers, who combine it with other data, and sell that powerful compilation to buyers, some of whom presumably may be working on behalf of foreign intelligence agencies.  Indeed, Oracle – the US-based company that would be in charge of TikTok’s US data under its “Project Texas” proposal, is, itself, currently the subject of a lawsuit alleging it runs a “worldwide surveillance machine” that collects personal data on billions of people worldwide, and then sells it to third parties.  And, most notoriously and as mentioned by the TikTok CEO during his testimony, Facebook allowed British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to collect personal data on millions of Facebook users, which it then analyzed and used for political advertising for the Trump campaign for president in 2016, among other things.

So there is a massive global market for data – and unlike most countries, the US has for the most part left our part of that market unregulated, with the exception of certain laws governing such things as health data, or state laws like the California Consumer Privacy Act.  Given this, would banning TikTok really do much prevent the Chinese intelligence services from obtaining the data it wants on Americans? 

Probably not, given how much data is out there and for purchase legally.  It could well be that TikTok’s user data is richer or valuable to intelligence agencies than the data that’s available on the open market.  In the words of former NSA General Counsel Glenn Gerstell, TikTok does collect “astonishing amounts of user information, more than some other popular social media apps.”  TikTok’s CEO disputed this at the hearing, but if it’s true, that might present an argument for a ban.  But we should understand that banning TikTok won’t prevent Chinese spies from accessing data on Americans.  Not even close, given the vast amount of data on us that’s out there, and the absence of federal laws regulating the collection, analysis, dissemination, and sale of that data by social media platforms and data brokers.  In that sense, banning TikTok may be the equivalent of the Blazing Saddles sheriff installing a tollbooth in the middle of the desert, with only the dumbest of intelligence agents digging into their pockets for dimes, as opposed to just searching elsewhere for the data they covet.

The second threat is that China could use TikTok to spread propaganda and shape US public opinion.  As warned by FBI Director Wray, “the Chinese government could . . . control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations.” 

Again, though, this is theoretical.  There is no evidence that China has ever used TikTok for this purpose.  No doubt, China censors content on Douyin – ByteDance’s equivalent of TikTok in China.  But there is no evidence China has attempted to censor TikTok content available in the US.   That being said, Chinese President Xi Jinping has emphasized the need for China to aggressively project “discourse power” by using social media platforms to shape global public opinion.  And TikTok might be a good vehicle for this, given the rising share of Americans who regularly get their news on the platform.  As noted by the Pew Research Center, “In just two years, the share of U.S. adults who say they regularly get news from TikTok has roughly tripled, from 3 percent in 2020 to 10 percent in 2022.”  This is especially true of Americans under thirty – roughly a quarter of whom, according to Pew, regularly get their news on TikTok. 

But again playing devil’s advocate – if TikTok were banned, would Chinese influence operations in the United States be significantly hampered?  The lack of a Russian TikTok clearly has been no obstacle to Russia’s highly successful influence operations over the last decade, including their meddling in the 2016 election.  The Russians just used other social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter.  Similarly, those who spread the “Big Lie” and other disinformation in the wake of the November 2020 election didn’t need their own social media platform.  They were easily able to use existing social media platforms to stir up the fervor that led to the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.  So, even if TikTok were banned, couldn’t the Chinese intelligence services do the same thing?

Ultimately, the focus on TikTok may be a red herring.  Whether or not it’s banned, the real issue is the danger presented by all social media platforms as they currently operate.  While some platforms have taken steps to combat foreign influence operations, reduce disinformation or extremist postings, and protect teen mental health, the reality is that we’re not much less vulnerable to the adverse impacts of social media now than we were in 2016 or before January 6.  Regardless of what happens with TikTok, we clearly need federal legislation giving the American people more transparency into how social media platforms operate, including into how their AI-powered recommendation algorithms work, and giving Americans more power to make choices regarding how they interact with those algorithms – including turning them off – and what happens with their data.  In addition, we need greater transparency into how social media companies restrict content and the standards used for de-platforming users, consistent with free speech and due process rights.  And we need to reconsider the degree to which platforms should be held accountable for the content posted on their sites. 

No doubt, these are controversial issues – on which there is far less bipartisan agreement than TikTok.  But it’s clear that banning TikTok won’t solve any of them.  This is not to say we shouldn’t ban the app, given the potential risks.  Maybe we should.  But we need to be clear-eyed about how much of a difference – if any – banning TikTok will make in addressing America’s clear vulnerability to espionage and influence campaigns by foreign adversaries like China or Russia, let alone to rising domestic extremism and political polarization.  No matter what we do with TikTok, we urgently need to address how open our data is to acquisition by bad actors wanting to exploit it, and how social media platforms in general have become such effective vehicles for foreign influence operations aimed at undermining our country.  We also need to be clear-eyed about the costs of banning TikTok – not only to the millions of Americans who enjoy using the app and America’s global reputation as a champion of free speech, but also to the already dangerously frosty US-China relationship. 

Bottom line – as we think about whether to ban TikTok, let’s be sure that whatever benefits we gain from doing so are worth the costs.

Cite this case study:

Seth Stodder, “TikTok in the Dock,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), March 29, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/03/29/tiktok-in-the-dock.