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TikTok, TikTok: The Clock Is Running Out

by Minden Press-Herald

A National Security Threat?

The Chinese-owned TikTok has been under attack throughout the last two US administrations, on the argument that data collection of American users would threaten national security. I’ve yet to see a persuasive argument that it does, but no matter: in an election year, arguments count far less than posturing, and in this case, the bipartisan consensus on the China threat is winning out. 

“My message to TikTok,” says Congressman Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a leading China hawk, is “break up with the Chinese Communist Party or lose access to your American users.” An overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives agreed, voting to demand the sale of TikTok to a US entity in six months or, if a sale cannot be made, a total ban on it. The bill now goes to the Senate, where it may not pass.

President Biden has indicated he will sign the bill. His administration has provided special intel briefings to legislators to win support for TikTok divestment. (BTW, the Biden campaign has a TikTok site.) 

Donald Trump once was also against TikTok; during his administration, he made a failed effort to close it down. Now he wants to have it both ways, knowing of TikTok’s popularity. 

He says TikTok is a national security threat, but also says it’s so popular that closing it down would cause young people to go crazy. The real reasons for Trump’s position are probably twofold: the CEO of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is a major contributor to his campaign, and Facebook, a chief competitor, is (to quote Trump) “an enemy of the people.”

Problems with the House Bill

Among the problems presented by the House bill are free-speech limitations, government overreach, and data security. The American Conservative Union and the American Civil Liberties Union have both urged Congress to reject the bill. 

Expressing the progressive view, Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez said she voted against the bill. “This bill was incredibly rushed, from committee to vote in 4 days, with little explanation,” she tweeted. “There are serious antitrust and privacy questions here, and any national security concerns should be laid out to the public prior to a vote.” 

Other legislators said they were unconvinced by the administration’s briefing on TikTok, and warned that if TikTok can be banned by the government, so can other apps. A Democratic representative from California said: “Banning TikTok won’t protect Americans from targeted misinformation or misuse of their personal data, which American data brokers routinely sell and share, This [bill] is a blunt instrument for serious concerns, and if enacted, would mark a huge expansion of government power to ban apps in the future.” Eventually, courts may have to weigh in on the matter.

Finally, we may wonder how much safer our personal data would be in the hands of an American social media company that already exploits our data for its own ends. Sara Jacobs, Democrat of California, said: “Not a single thing that we heard in today’s classified briefing was unique to TikTok. It was things that happen on every single social media platform.” 

Those “things” include sharing data with advertisers and allowing all manner of lies and deceptions to appear on Facebook, Google, and other sites. “They strip mine our data to make money,” says one opinion writer. And all that stands in company with the US government’s own spying on us which has a long history.

Needed: Common Sense

China’s response was that the US was engaged in “bullying.” A spokesman made a global capitalist argument: the US was disrupting international markets and “sabotaging” the international economic trade order. (Beijing forgot to mention that YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram are banned in China.) 

TikTok once again denied that it is a threat to US personal data or that its acquired data was for sale. In fact, TikTok renewed its proposal to transfer all its data on U.S. citizens to a US subsidiary that would be overseen by Oracle, which would oversee TikTok’s algorithms and content. 

But for reasons never revealed, the US rejected the idea. However, TikTok made a political mistake this time around when it urged users to call Congress members to vote against the bill. That didn’t go over well with lawmakers.

Meantime, according to David Sanger, the New York Times national security expert, the idea of selling TikTok to a US company makes no sense. “TikTok has far less to do with who owns it than it does with who writes the code and algorithms that make TikTok tick.” 

The algorithms are owned by ByteDance, and the Chinese government decides when and whether the algorithms can be granted a license for sale to outsiders. Thus, says Sanger, “Few expect those licenses to be issued — meaning that selling TikTok to an American owner without the underlying code might be like selling a Ferrari without its famed engine.” From that angle, the only option left is a ban, which in an election year and 170 million TikTok users, is surely a bad idea.

The underlying issue in this long-running battle is the technological competition between China and the US. Just as the Biden administration is imposing export controls on semiconductors and other advanced technology transactions with China, the Chinese are withholding their codes from the US and expanding their own semiconductor industry. 

Both sides are playing the national-security game to justify protecting technological secrets and denying certain technologies to the adversary. The TikTok debate is caught up in this high-stakes game. But TikTok may survive in the US for one simple reason: It has 170 million votes. 

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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