TikTok in the dock

Editorial Board
Sunday, Mar 26, 2023

The fate of the short-video-sharing platform, TikTok, has always been a bit tentative in the US. During Donald Trump’s presidency, the US Administration had stopped American companies from doing business with ByteDance – TikTok’s parent company. This order was reversed by US President Joe Biden in June 2021, who authorized the company’s review by the US committee on foreign investment. As the review stalled, Biden directed TikTok to sell its Chinese-owned shares or face the ban in the US. Lawmakers in the US believe that China – regarding which they have a nearly irrational fear – is using the app to spy on Americans. These spy theories have intensified since the Chinese weather balloons incident in January. For the first time since assuming the role of the company’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew appeared before US lawmakers and faced a grilling. For many, the event was similar to one in 2018 when Mark Zuckerberg appeared before lawmakers to talk about his platform’s data-privacy issues. Even though Chew, in his opening remarks, maintained that ByteDance is “not an agent of China or any other country,” statements from the Chinese government where authorities said that they would strongly oppose the forced sale of the company (probably referring to Biden’s conditions of selling Chinese-owned shares) have made American lawmakers even more sceptical.

Most of what is going on with TikTok is a result of the rising tensions between the US and China. TikTok has over 150 million active US users. Chew has also informed the lawmakers that his company intends to move all US data to domestic servers in the country. And by the end of the year, the company intends to remove all data that is stored in servers outside the country (although he didn’t mention the countries where data is stored). In the tech world, data transfers are normal and the fact that a company stores data in other jurisdictions doesn’t mean malintent. Temperatures during Chew’s testimony were high, and the US lawmakers barely concealed the fact that they would not be lenient. They were also not ready to believe that the Chinese government never asked for data of US users from the company.

Not all has been about US-China issues; lawmakers also asked relevant questions from the CEO of TikTok about dangerous content on the platform. Parents of a young teen who died after stepping in front of a moving train, reportedly after watching self-harm content on TikTok, were also present in the hearing. Chew was also questioned whether his children use the app (reports suggest they do not). Challenges on TikTok like the blackout challenge have been lethal for children, many of whom have died while performing the dare. Overall, the CEO could not give a satisfactory response to the lawmakers. Federal officials in the US are also divided over whether or not the app should be banned. Regardless of it all, it is a bit rich of US lawmakers to choose TikTok over which to outrage when it comes to privacy and safety. We have seen Big Tech being unaccountable across countries – whether Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. Much may need to be fixed with TikTok – as is the case with all Big Tech sites – but there is a lurking feeling that this is more China on trial and less TikTok on trial.