Is the clock ticking down for TikTok in America?
"As far as TikTok is concerned, we're banning them from the United States," President Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on July 31. Trump’s position is in response to the concerns that American officials and policymakers have over the Chinese-owned app, an app that is currently more popular than even Instagram and YouTube in the U.S.
The Concerns over TikTok
Policymakers are concerned that ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, has access to information about Americans through the app, and what they would do with that access and that information. While TikTok has it’s own U.S. operations, with its own American CEO (Kevin Mayer, formerly of Disney) and 1,000 American employees, it’s still viewed as a threat to national security because the Communist Chinese government “has the ability to access [TikTok’s] systems under local laws.”
TikTok’s Chinese parent company has access to information about Americans through the app.
Additionally, TikTok’s American engineers allegedly don’t report to Mayer, most of ByteDance’s engineers operate from China, and TikTok USA still “relies on a Beijing-based codebase.”
TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide addressed these concerns, saying, "TikTok US user data is stored in the US, with strict controls on employee access. TikTok's biggest investors come from the US. We are committed to protecting our users' privacy and safety as we continue working to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to those who create on our platform.” According to the BBC, the data backup is stored in Singapore.
Is TikTok a cybersecurity threat?
But assurances of innocence and right-doing by the company under suspicion are hardly comforting. Especially when so many other institutions and experts are either investigating or warning against TikTok over cybersecurity concerns. According to Forbes, the U.S. military has forbidden members from using TikTok. Check Point, an Israeli cybersecurity firm, has concluded TikTok has “backdoors and major vulnerabilities, as well as overall security issues.” Apple asserts that TikTok has taken advantage of the clipboard capture feature to spy on users. Steve Huffman, co-founder and CEO of Reddit, describes it as “spyware” and a “fundamentally parasitic app that is always listening.”
The U.S. military has forbidden members from using TikTok.
India has banned the app, claiming that TikTok was “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.” The U.S. government is also investigating the app.
Is TikTok a political threat?
Others are more concerned about the influence China could hold over the political sphere and upcoming elections through manipulating TikTok’s algorithms. Jordan Schneider, a Beijing-based journalist for LawFare, explains his reasons why we should be worried that China can influence American politics through an app devoted to fun dances and lip-sync videos. He explains that since TikTok’s younger American users have gotten politically woke in 2020, and are now using TikTok to voice their political opinions, it will be neither difficult nor obvious for TikTok to “push certain videos to promote one candidate over another.” Others are concerned China could use TikTok to push Chinese propaganda.
What TikTok Has Said about the Situation
On July 29, 2020, CEO Kevin Mayer posted a letter addressing the situation. He acknowledged that the company’s Chinese origin makes people uncomfortable. Mayer wrote, “We accept this and embrace the challenge of giving peace of mind through greater transparency and accountability. We believe it is essential to show users, advertisers, creators, and regulators that we are responsible and committed members of the American community that follows US laws.”
In order to prove that TikTok is a trustworthy company, it “has taken the first step by launching a Transparency and Accountability Center for moderation and data practices. Experts can observe our moderation policies in real-time, as well as examine the actual code that drives our algorithms.”
“We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda.”
Mayer closes with a statement of neutrality: “We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda – our only objective is to remain a vibrant, dynamic platform for everyone to enjoy.”
What Are Trump’s Options To Restrict TikTok?
Trump has several options that would effectively cripple TikTok. He could use the 2019 International Emergency Economic Powers Act to block TikTok from American app stores, like Apple and Google. He could also have the Commerce Department put ByteDance on the entity list, which would basically stop American companies from buying ads on TikTok and would forbid ByteDance from pushing TikTok updates. And lastly, the Trump administration could order TikTok be sold, or TikTok could voluntarily put itself up for sale.
Microsoft Is in Talks To Buy TikTok
On August 2, Microsoft confirmed that it was in talks with ByteDance to buy TikTok in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella has spoken with Trump, who has reportedly agreed to give ByteDance 45 days to negotiate a sale with Microsoft. Microsoft will continue to work with the government on its deal with TikTok. It hopes to reach a conclusion by September 15.
Trump has reportedly agreed to give ByteDance 45 days to negotiate a sale with Microsoft.
Microsoft has promised that all data on U.S. TikTok users will be located in America and deleted from anywhere else it has been stored. Microsoft’s statement also said, “This new structure would build on the experience TikTok users currently love, while adding world-class security, privacy, and digital safety protections. The operating model for the service would be built to ensure transparency to users as well as appropriate security oversight by governments in these countries.”
Whether Microsoft succeeds in buying TikTok or Trump ends up banning it, we’ll have to wait and see. But now that we’ve started down this road, woke TikTok users are likely to be upset with Trump even if Microsoft buys TikTok and improves it.