Why are US government figures concerned about popular social media app TikTok?
Since TikTok was launched in the international market in 2017, it has become something of a sensation among younger generations of internet users. Though it has yet to surpass Facebook-owned Instagram, the app has been rising steadily in popularity and has even spawned its own array of internet stars on the platform.
Yet just as its star has continued to rise, so too has the level of scrutiny coming from various corners of the US government. But why has the app run so foul of lawmakers and how has the situation developed?
TikTok is owned by a large, Beijing-headquartered digital media company called ByteDance. The company has a suite of other brands under its belt, including the China-only version of TikTok, called Douyin, which is said to be censored by the Chinese government.
However, its core offering is Chinese news content platform Toutiao, which generates a personalised feed for users based on their interactions on the platform.
In 2017, ByteDance paid $1bn to acquire Musical.ly, a competitor platform popular among US teenagers, and merged it into TikTok. The acquisition may have helped boost the app but it also elicited concerns from the US government.
A number of US lawmakers recently began urging intelligence officials to launch an investigation into TikTok’s acquisition, citing “national security concerns”, The Washington Post initially reported.
A letter from officials also questioned the app’s data collection practices and whether it is judging internationally generated content against Chinese censorship standards.
“With over 110m downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” wrote US senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton, both of whom sit on the US Senate Intelligence Committee.
“Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms operating in the US and brief Congress on these findings.”
A week after this letter was published, sources confirmed to Reuters that the US government had launched a formal investigation into the app.
Concerns about the platform continued this week, after a number of former US-based TikTok employees claimed that they were pressured to remove “culturally problematic” material that may offend the Chinese government, such as videos featuring vaping, suggestive dancing or social and political issues.
TikTok has denied that it has moderators based in China for its international app. However, leaked internal documents published by The Guardian last month suggested that ByteDance is censoring videos on TikTok relating to certain political issues and “is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app”.
‘The typically humorous nature of the content on TikTok belies its potential to be used as a robust data collection platform’
– JOHN DERMODY
The company didn’t do much to endear itself on Tuesday (5 November) when it, along with Apple, declined to send a representative to a senate hearing concerning data security and China.
The US government gave both firms the ‘empty seat’ treatment – prominently displaying the name at an empty chair and table, drawing explicit attention to the absence.
Some commentators have also begun to express fears about data harvesting on the platform, such as John Dermody, a former official with the US National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security, who currently serves as counsel in the Washington, DC, office of O’Melveny & Myers LLP.
“The typically humorous nature of the content on TikTok belies its potential to be used as a robust data collection platform,” he said.
“The app taps into a rich ecosystem of data, allowing TikTok to collect user contact, financial and location data, as well as the user’s phone and social media contacts. The content itself – oftentimes videos of users – could be exploited through facial recognition technology to develop biometric profiles.”
The FTC doled out a $5.7m fine to the app earlier this year, censuring it for collecting data from children younger than 13.
As tensions continue with the ongoing trade war between the US and China, it is unclear what the future outlook will be for TikTok’s international presence.