US Scrutiny on Chinese App TikTok Intensifies

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TikTok, a Chinese app used for creating and sharing short video clips, is currently under close scrutiny from the US government amid concerns of data privacy and threats to national security. Questions surround its owner, Beijing-based tech company, ByteDance, and their close ties with the Chinese Communist Party.

Rising Popularity, Rising Scrutiny

The social video app was the most downloaded app on both iOS and Android in September 2019 — surpassing Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat. It was installed 60 million times that month, with the bulk of the downloads coming out India (44%) and the United States (8%).  As a whole, TikTok was downloaded 660 million times in 2018, making it the most popular app on iOS and the fourth most popular on Google Play for the whole year. In the US, it’s been downloaded more than 110 million times since 2017. 

US lawmakers have asked US intelligence officials to investigate whether TikTok poses “national security risks,” particularly on data collected by the lip-syncing app from American users. They want to investigate whether or not the Chinese-owned tech firm could possibly share it with the Communist Party.

Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR), reportedly asked Joseph Maguire, acting Director of National Intelligence, to look into reports that Tiktok censors content that is offensive to the Chinese government — saying this is a “potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore.

Last month, Sen. Marco Rubio also called for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to investigate ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of American lip-syncing app Musical.ly, which later merged with TikTok. 

Various media reports said the Chinese app TikTok did not go through a CFIUS review when it acquired Musical.ly and its American user base for $1 billion in 2017.

TikTok Responds

TikTok already responded to reports, saying in a blog post that data on US users is stored in the United States, not subject to Chinese laws. 

“Let us be very clear: TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China. We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” the unsigned statement said.

“Our US moderation team, which is led out of California, reviews content for adherence to our US policies – just like other US companies in our space. We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future,” it added.

In its response, however, TikTok failed to disclose that its Chinese owner, ByteDance, also owns a Chinese version of TikTok, called Douyin.

Hawley Pounces

In a Senate hearing on Tuesday following the launch of the US government’s national security review, Sen. Josh Hawley sounded the alarm once more. 

“If you don’t know what TikTok is, you should,” the Republican senator said calling the app “a Chinese-owned social media platform so popular among teens that Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly spooked.”

“For Facebook, the fear is lost social media market share. For the rest of us, the fear is somewhat different. A company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they’re watching, and what they share with each other,” he added.

Watch his statements here:

TikTok was invited to appear in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing along with Apple, to talk about how “big tech leave our data exposed to criminals, China, and other bad actors,” but neither company appeared.

Hawley added: “TikTok claims they don’t store American user data in China. That’s nice, but all it takes is one knock on the door of their parent company based in China from a Communist Party official for that data to be transferred to the Chinese government’s hands whenever they need it.”

“The threat isn’t just to children’s privacy, it’s a threat to our national security,” he further said.

Zuckerberg Piles On

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was also clearly bothered by what he labeled TikTok’s censorship of content:

“While our services like WhatsApp are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US. Is that the internet we want?,” Zuckerberg said in a Georgetown University speech on free speech.

“Until recently, the internet in almost every country outside China has been defined by American platforms with strong free expression values,” Zuckerberg said, adding: “There’s no guarantee these values will win out.”

Here’s Zuckerberg’s full speech: 

More Than Meets the Eye?

Despite TikTok’s denial, several media reports claim that the Chinese app is indeed suppressing content that could be offensive to China  — take, for example, the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

ByteDance founder, Zhang Yiming, was quoted by the Financial Times in a 2018 report to have earlier said: “We didn’t realize that technology has to be guided by the core values of socialism, so that it can be used to spread positive energy, meet the requirements of the times and respect public order and good customs.” 

China’s National Intelligence Law also requires “organizations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.”

Here are the relevant articles:

Read more about China’s National Intelligence Law here.