The TikTok battle is worsening relations between the US and China. Last week, Xu Qiu, the CEO of TikTok, was grilled for five hours by members of Congress concerned above all about possible interference by the Chinese government in the company’s activities in the United States.
The hearing came amid growing concerns in Congress and the Biden administration that the Chinese tech company is unable to protect user privacy and could be exploited by the Chinese government to disrupt the democratic process. While the challenge posed by TikTok is clear, the way forward is not.
Some members of Congress have called for TikTok to be banned in the US. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers moderated the hearing and set the tone. “We don’t think TikTok will ever embrace American values,” said Ms. Rodgers.
But expecting TikTok to “embrace American values” creates an inappropriate and unreasonable standard. If we expect all foreign companies operating in the United States to adopt “American values,” it is not hard to imagine that other governments would require the same. »
Additionally, banning TikTok would undermine America’s historic commitment to free speech. As the ACLU and 15 other human rights organizations have pointed out, “If the government intervened to ban TikTok completely, it would undermine the right of citizens to communicate the way they want. It would raise important First Amendment issues.” As Justice William O. Douglas 70 years ago in a speech, “Restricting freedom of thought and expression is the most dangerous kind of subversion.”
Banning TikTok would also ignore the massive popularity of the platform. In less than six years, it has attracted more than 150 million US users. Banning such a popular platform would be politically difficult. A recent Washington Post poll showed that while banning TikTok has a lot of support, especially among older Republicans, younger Republicans strongly reject it. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo recently told Bloomberg News about a possible ban: “The politician in me thinks you’re literally going to lose every voter under 35 forever.”
Those who defend TikTok say it poses no greater threat to user privacy than any other social media company. This claim greatly downplays the official restrictions faced by Chinese companies, such as ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company. Chinese companies must comply with laws such as the National Intelligence Act of 2017 and the Anti-Espionage Act of 2014, which give state agencies sweeping powers to force disclosure of data as part of surveys. Chinese authorities also have the power to revoke licenses and conduct extensive regulatory and tax investigations. In recent years, the Chinese authorities have taken a series of measures aimed at tightening control over major technology companies.
During last week’s hearing, Mr. Qiu repeatedly tried to downplay the possibility of Chinese government interference, saying ByteDance is a private company that “is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government.” Accepting the Chinese government’s pledge to never require companies to hand over user information “is like their argument that they don’t censor the Internet,” said Lukman Cui, a member of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. He described the Chinese government’s promise as “ridiculous and ridiculous”.
Another concern is that the Chinese government will use TikTok’s massive presence in the US to promote Chinese propaganda. In November 2022, FBI Director Christopher Wray told members of Congress that “the Chinese government could use TikTok to control the data collection of millions of users or to control its recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations.”
A recent report by four Australian academic researchers to the Australian Senate Committee on Foreign Interference in Social Media concluded that ByteDance is “associated” with the Chinese government. “TikTok provides Beijing with the latent ability to weaponize the platform by suppressing, amplifying, and otherwise calibrating narratives,” the researchers said. “In the absence of political action, TikTok could be the next challenge to the resilience of democracies in the face of authoritarian interference,” their report concludes.
TikTok’s tendency towards censorship has been widely discussed, for example in relation to the removal of criticism of Chinese government leaders, as well as information about human rights abuses in Xinjiang province. Forbes reported that ByteDance employees also monitored several Forbes journalists reporting on the company, improperly accessing their IP addresses and user data. During last week’s hearing, when Mr. Qiu was asked whether ByteDance was coerced by the Chinese government into spying on American journalists, the CEO initially said no, but when asked the question again, he said: “I don’t think espionage is the right way to describe it.” the situation “.
Given these concerns, the best solution is for ByteDance to sell TikTok to a buyer outside of the Chinese government’s control. Given the company’s remarkable growth, popularity, and market capitalization, it should be possible to find a buyer, despite the controversy surrounding it. However, hours before the hearing last Thursday in Washington, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said at a news conference in Beijing that the Chinese government would firmly oppose the sale of the app. She added that imposing such a deal “would seriously undermine the confidence of investors from various countries, including China, to invest in the United States.” This statement only emphasized the image the government appears to have of itself as a major player in the TikTok drama and the difficulty in finding a solution.
For starters, the Biden government should pressure the major US financial companies that have invested in ByteDance to support the sale. These include Sequoia Capital, The Carlyle Group (CG +0.3%), BlackRock (BLK +0.5%), Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts. ByteDance itself acknowledges that 60% of the company’s shares are owned by non-Chinese investors. The government should call out these investment giants and demand that they use all their influence with ByteDance and the Chinese authorities to facilitate this sale.
If these efforts fail, Congress and the government may have no choice but to tighten existing restrictions on TikTok. On March 7, Senators Mark Warner and John Thune, along with ten other senators, introduced a bill that would allow the Commerce Department to strengthen the authority of the US government to deal with quiet security risks posed by online transactions. Risks posed by certain classes of transactions involving countries involved in sensitive technology sectors. This bill has the attention of Congress and the support of the White House.
Another broader legislative proposal, backed by Representatives Cathy Rodgers, Jan Schakowski and Gus Bilirakis, would apply to TikTok and all other social media apps, limiting the amount of data companies can collect about people online. If passed, the ruling would force TikTok, and all other social media companies operating in the US, to collect significantly less data and reduce their ability to shape information flows through algorithmic amplification.
Another proposal from Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Jerry Moran would expedite a Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) investigation into TikTok, which could also mitigate security risks without blocking users from accessing the platform.
The Biden government is also expected to tighten the terms of TikTok’s plan to store US user data on servers owned and operated by US networking giant Oracle (ORCL + 2.4%) and located in the US. The White House could impose new reporting requirements that would allow Oracle to monitor how TikTok’s algorithm recommends content, another potential protection against the platform being used to spread disinformation to the Chinese government.
Finally, Congress could authorize funding from the Federal Trade Commission to create a digital security unit to regulate social media companies like TikTok. This unit will ensure that they maintain procedurally appropriate content moderation systems and establish new transparency requirements that will require them to disclose how their algorithms order, recommend, and remove content.
It wouldn’t be easy to organize a large social media company like TikTok. But the complexity of the task does not make it unsuitable, let alone useless. The fact that TikTok’s parent company is headquartered in China makes it different from its competitors and requires that it be treated differently.
Translated article from the American magazine Forbes – Author: Michael Posner
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