California: The battle between the US and China over TikTok came into full view on Thursday when the social media platform's CEO testified before Congressional lawmakers.
Shou Zi Chew's hearing in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is happening at what he's called a “pivotal moment” for the hugely popular short video sharing app. TikTok is owned by parent company ByteDance, which has offices in Beijing. The platform has 150 million American users but it's been dogged by persistent claims that it threatens national security and user privacy, or could be used to promote pro-Beijing propaganda and misinformation.
Chew attempted to persuade lawmakers not to pursue a ban on the app or force its sale to new owners.
If policy makers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should advocate for a basic privacy law that bans all companies from collecting so much sensitive data about us in the first place, rather than engaging in what amounts to xenophobic showboating that does exactly nothing to protect anyone.
So are the data security risks real? And should users be worried that the TikTok app will be wiped off their phones?
Here’s what to know:
WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS ABOUT TIKTOK?
Both the FBI and officials at the Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance could share TikTok user data — such as browsing history, location and biometric identifiers — with China’s authoritarian government.
Officials fear that TikTok, which like many other social media platforms collects vast amounts of data on its users, would be forced to give it to Beijing under a 2017 law that compels companies to turn over any personal data relevant to China's national security.
Concerns around TikTok were heightened in December when ByteDance said it fired four employees who accessed data on journalists from Buzzfeed News and The Financial Times while attempting to track down the source of a leaked report about the company.
HOW IS THE US RESPONDING?
In a rare, bipartisan effort to reign in the power and influence of a major social media platform, Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressed Chew during Thursday’s hearing on a host of topics, ranging from TikTok’s content moderation practices, how the company plans to secure American data from Beijing, and that it admits spying on journalists.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US — known as CFIUS and part of the Treasury Department — is also carrying out a review, and has reportedly threatened a U.S. ban on the app unless its Chinese owners divest their stake. China’s Foreign Ministry in turn accused the United States itself of spreading disinformation about TikTok’s potential security risks.
White House officials have said there are “legitimate national security concerns with respect to data integrity."
Some US senators urged CFIUS last year to quickly wrap up its investigation and "impose strict structural restrictions” between TikTok's American operations and ByteDance, including potentially separating the companies.
At the same time, lawmakers have introduced measures that would expand the Biden administration's authority to enact a national ban on TikTok. The White House has already backed a Senate proposal that has bipartisan support.
HOW HAS TIKTOK ALREADY BEEN RESTRICTED?
Authorities in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific have banned the TikTok app , mostly on government-issued phones or devices used for official business, citing cybersecurity concerns. Last week Britain imposed a government phone ban while New Zealand restricted lawmakers and other workers in its Parliament from having it on their phones.
The European Union’s three main institutions, the executive Commission, Parliament and Council, have ordered staffers to remove it from their work phones. So has Denmark's defense ministry . The Canadian government said its ban includes blocking civil servants from downloading the app in the future. Norway and Netherlands warned this week against installing TikTok on government devices.
The White House ordered US federal agencies to delete TikTok from all government-issued mobile devices. Congress, the US armed forces and more than half of US states had already banned the app.
Under a $1.5 billion project dubbed Project Texas that's underway, data from US users is being routed through servers controlled by Oracle, the Silicon Valley company it partnered with in an effort to avoid a nationwide ban.
Older US user data stored on non-Oracle servers will be deleted this year. Under this arrangement, there's no way for Beijing to access the data, Chew said in prepared remarks released ahead of the hearing.
TikTok has also sought to portray ByteDance as a global company, not a Chinese one. Executives have been pointing out that ByteDance's ownership consists of 60% big global investors, 20% employees and 20% Chinese entrepreneurs who founded the company. TikTok itself is headquartered in Singapore.
ARE THE SECURITY RISKS LEGITIMATE?
It depends on who you ask.
Some tech privacy advocates say while the potential abuse of privacy by the Chinese government is concerning, other tech companies have data-harvesting business practices that also exploit user information.
“If policy makers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should advocate for a basic privacy law that bans all companies from collecting so much sensitive data about us in the first place, rather than engaging in what amounts to xenophobic showboating that does exactly nothing to protect anyone,” said Evan Greer, director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future.
Karim Farhat, a researcher with the Internet Governance Project at Georgia Tech, said a TikTok sale would be “completely irrelevant to any of the alleged ‘national security’ threats” and go against “every free market principle and norm” of the state department’s internet freedom principles.
Others say there is legitimate reason for concern.
People who use TikTok might think they’re not doing anything that would be of interest to a foreign government, but that’s not always the case, said Anton Dahbura, executive director of the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute. Important information about the United States is not strictly limited to nuclear power plants or military facilities; it extends to other sectors, such as food processing, the finance industry and universities, Dahbura said.
IS THERE PRECEDENCE FOR BANNING TECH COMPANIES?
The US has banned the communications equipment sold by Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE, citing national security risks. But banning the sale of items is easier than banning a free app.
Such a move might also wind up in courts on grounds that it could violate the First Amendment, as some civil liberties groups have argued.
Another possibility, albeit remote, is forcing a sale. That's what happened in 2020 when Beijing Kunlun, a Chinese mobile video game company, agreed to sell gay dating app Grindr after an order from CFIUS.
Beijing Kunlun said it signed a "national security agreement” with CFIUS to sell Grindr to San Vicente Acquisition for $608.5 million, promising not to send sensitive user data to China, cease its operations there and maintain its headquarters in the US.
Here are the places that have implemented partial or total bans on TikTok:
Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership banned TikTok and the game PUBG in 2022 on the grounds of protecting young people from “being misled.”
Belgium temporarily banned TikTok from devices owned or paid for by the federal government, citing worries about cybersecurity, privacy and misinformation. Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the six-month ban was based on warnings from the state security service and its cybersecurity center.
Canada announced government-issued devices must not use TikTok, saying that it presents an “unacceptable” risk to privacy and security . Employees will also be blocked from downloading the application in the future.
Denmark’s Defense Ministry banned its employees from having TikTok on their work phones, ordering staffers who have installed it to remove the app from devices as soon as possible. The ministry said the reasons for the ban included both “weighty security considerations” as well as “very limited work-related need to use the app.”
The European Parliament, European Commission and the EU Council, the 27-member bloc’s three main institutions, have imposed bans on TikTok on staff devices. Under the European Parliament’s ban, which took effect Monday, lawmakers and staff were also advised to remove the TikTok app from their personal devices.
India imposed a nationwide ban on TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps, including the messaging app WeChat, in 2020 over privacy and security concerns. The ban came shortly after a clash between Indian and Chinese troops at a disputed Himalayan border killed 20 Indian soldiers and injured dozens.
The companies were given a chance to respond to questions on privacy and security requirements but the ban was made permanent in January 2021.
Lawmakers in New Zealand and staff at the nation’s Parliament will be prohibited from having the TikTok app on their work phones, following advice from government cybersecurity experts. Under the ban, which takes effect at the end of March, the app will be removed from all devices with access to the parliamentary network, although officials can make special arrangements for anybody who needs TikTok to perform their democratic duties.
The Norwegian parliament on Thursday banned Tiktok on work devices, after the country's Justice Ministry warned the app shouldn't be installed on phones issued to government employees. The Parliament's speaker said TikTok shouldn't be on devices that have access to the assembly’s systems and should be removed as quickly as possible. The country's capital Oslo and second largest city Bergen also urged municipal employees to remove TikTok from their work phones.
Pakistani authorities have temporarily banned TikTok at least four times since October 2020, citing concerns that app promotes immoral content.
In December 2022, Taiwan imposed a public sector ban on TikTok after the FBI warned that TikTok posed a national security risk. Government devices, including mobile phones, tablets and desktop computers, are not allowed to use Chinese-made software, which include apps like TikTok, its Chinese equivalent Douyin, or Xiaohongshu, a Chinese lifestyle content app.
British authorities in mid-March banned TikTok from mobile phones used by government ministers and civil servants with immediate effect. Officials said the ban was a “precautionary move” on security grounds, and doesn't apply to personal devices. The British Parliament followed that up Thursday by announcing a ban on TikTok from all official devices and the “wider parliamentary network.” The semi-autonomous Scottish government also said Thursday it was banning TikTok from official devices, effective immediately.
The US at the start of March gave government agencies 30 days to delete TikTok from federal devices and systems over data security concerns. The ban applies only to government devices, though some U.S. lawmakers are advocating an outright ban. China lashed out at the US for banning TikTok, describing the ban as an abuse of state power and suppressing firms from other countries. More than half of the 50 US states also have banned the app from official devices, as have Congress and the US armed forces.