To this point, Challenge Texas seems to be primarily an train in geography, one which appears well-positioned to handle considerations in regards to the Chinese language authorities accessing People’ private info. Nevertheless it doesn’t tackle different ways in which China might weaponize the platform, like tweaking TikTok algorithms to extend publicity to divisive content material, or adjusting the platform to seed or encourage disinformation campaigns.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Our on-line world Coverage program on the Council on Overseas Relations, informed BuzzFeed Information that the Chinese language authorities’s affect on TikTok’s algorithms is a extra urgent concern than knowledge exfiltration. “I’ve by no means seen a very good argument about what the Chinese language might get from TikTok knowledge that they will’t get from a whole lot of different sources,” he stated. However he did level to examples of the Chinese language Communist Celebration utilizing know-how to warp digital discourse, together with TikTok’s earlier censorship of speech dangerous to China’s “nationwide honor,” and a 2020 try by a China-based Zoom worker to disrupt video conferences commemorating the Tiananmen Sq. bloodbath.
TikTok vehemently denies accusations that it censors speech essential of China at the moment. And members of TikTok’s Belief & Security group, which makes and enforces content material insurance policies for the corporate, portrayed it as comparatively effectively insulated from ByteDance affect. Workers described Belief & Security staff as having much less frequent contact with Beijing, and clearer strains of reporting, than different staff that BuzzFeed Information spoke to — and described TikTok’s Belief & Security practices as much like these adopted by US-based tech giants. Nonetheless, the query of reporting construction looms massive: Like different senior TikTok officers, its head of Belief & Security experiences to TikTok’s CEO, who experiences to ByteDance as TikTok’s company proprietor. And so long as the buck stops with ByteDance, “there’s a ceiling” to how a lot TikTok can distance itself from the Chinese language authorities, Lewis stated.
US lawmakers have made clear that their considerations about TikTok transcend the place knowledge is saved. In a 2019 tweet, Sen. Chuck Schumer stated that below Chinese language legislation, TikTok and ByteDance “will be compelled to cooperate with intelligence work managed by China’s Communist Celebration.” At an October 2021 Senate listening to, TikTok’s Head of Public Coverage for the Americas Michael Beckerman testified that TikTok’s privateness coverage permits it to share the knowledge it collects (together with US person knowledge) with ByteDance. He declined to reply questions from Sen. Ted Cruz about whether or not the coverage permits TikTok to share that knowledge with Beijing ByteDance Know-how, one other ByteDance subsidiary that’s partially owned by the Chinese language Communist Celebration.
On the identical listening to, Sen. Marsha Blackburn requested Beckerman whether or not ByteDance staff had entry to TikTok’s algorithm. Beckerman, indirectly answering the query, stated that US person knowledge is saved within the US. Blackburn additionally requested whether or not there are programmers, product builders, and knowledge groups in China engaged on TikTok. Beckerman confirmed that there are.
Lawmakers past the US have additionally raised considerations about TikTok’s relationship with China. In June 2020, the Indian authorities banned TikTok, WeChat, and greater than 50 different Chinese language apps after a conflict on the India–China border that killed 20 Indian troopers. India’s regulatory physique, the Ministry of Electronics and Data Know-how, alleged that the apps have been “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting” Indian person knowledge to knowledge facilities exterior of India. In August 2020, intelligence businesses in Australia started investigating whether or not TikTok poses a safety menace to the nation. In September 2021, Eire’s Knowledge Safety Fee opened an investigation into how TikTok transfers person knowledge to international locations exterior the EU.
The similarities between completely different international locations’ regulatory considerations about TikTok and China emphasize the potential significance of Challenge Texas. If it succeeds within the US, the challenge could function a roadmap for TikTok in different jurisdictions (even perhaps in India, the place it has been banned). It could additionally function a mannequin for different massive corporations, like Amazon, Fb, and Google, which face related considerations from abroad regulators about gathering their residents’ private info.
Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford–New America DigiChina Challenge on the Stanford College Cyber Coverage Heart, sees TikTok as “a guinea pig” for lawmakers’ inherent skepticism about overseas corporations gathering their residents’ knowledge. Nonetheless, Webster says he’s optimistic, as a result of ByteDance has a heavy incentive to get regulators absolutely comfy with TikTok.
“It is a firm that’s on the lookout for a method for this to truly work,” he stated. “They’re going to maintain making an attempt till there’s an apparent defeat, as a result of the amount of cash on the desk is gigantic.” ●