Will TikTok’s Time in the U.S. run out?
Vienna Parnell | May 4th, 2023
In recent months, there has been increasing bipartisan support for the banning of TikTok, the immensely popular social media platform known for its short-form videos, dance challenges, and viral influencers. With concerns ranging from national security to privacy, many lawmakers and citizens alike are questioning whether TikTok should be allowed to operate within their borders. But how has this seemingly innocuous app become so embroiled in controversy, and what has been the fallout of the dispute?
Boasting over 100 million users in the United States alone, TikTok has established itself as a primary source of information and entertainment for younger audiences. However, governments around the world have raised concerns over the app’s ownership under Chinese internet technology company ByteDance, leading many to wonder whether the app could collect personal data and compromise national security. Several countries, including India, the UK, and Australia, have already placed bans restricting the availability of TikTok—and now the U.S. is looking to do the same.
As of late 2022, TikTok had been banned on federal government devices, and more than half of the states have since then followed suit. Some universities—like UT Austin, Boise State University, and Auburn University—have blocked TikTok on school Wi-Fi networks, and the app continues to be under intense scrutiny for its treatment of data.
Testifying in front of the Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, 2023 in a 5-hour congressional hearing, TikTok CEO Shou Chew responded to inquiries about the app’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Chew also addressed how the app collects user data, highlighting the company’s commitment to user privacy and stating that TikTok would not share user data with the Chinese government. At multiple points Chew cited ‘Project Texas,’ an ongoing $1.5 billion initiative aimed at migrating and storing all American data to be overseen by Oracle on American soil, beyond the reach of the CCP.
This ambitious project is allegedly progressing well yet has done little to quell lawmakers’ concerns, as employees in Beijing still have access to U.S. user data for the time being. According to Article 7 of China’s National Intelligence Law from 2017, “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work in accordance with the law, and maintain the secrecy of all knowledge of state intelligence work.”
In other words, companies like ByteDance would be obligated to share information with the CCP upon request and keep this exchange confidential, which raises doubts about the credibility of Shou Chew’s statements in court. The key implication here is that TikTok and the CCP might have already been in communication, contrary to Shou Chew’s denial, which could mean that American user data has already been compromised, rendering an initiative like Project Texas ineffective.
A couple months before the congressional hearing, Vanderbilt hosted an exhibition debate of its own in January on TikTok bans at universities, a large component of the TikTok user demographic. The Vanderbilt team affirmed that a ban on TikTok would be in the best interest of universities, while the team from the University of Mississippi defended the app on the grounds that any concerns regarding misinformation and the spreading of harmful content are also true of any American social media company.
While the resolution debated by the respective university teams was limited in scope, I believe the point the negation made applies to the larger controversy surrounding TikTok. In my opinion, policymakers should not focus solely on TikTok but should also direct their attention to potential privacy violations and community guidelines of all mainstream social media apps, including Instagram and Facebook. This approach will help prevent the problem from being wrongly interpreted as a China vs. the U.S. situation. Instead, lawmakers can concentrate on safeguarding user data privacy and promoting the responsible use of social media platforms as a whole.
At the time being, the fate of TikTok and whether it poses a genuine risk remain inconclusive. One thing is clear, however: the privacy and security of user data should be the top priority for any social media platform operating in the U.S. and around the world. The controversy surrounding TikTok has brought attention to the larger issue of data privacy and security in the digital age, and policymakers must work to develop effective measures to protect users and prevent potential misuse of their data.
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