Two senators are pressing for an investigation into TikTok, a short-form video app that’s mostly popular with teenagers, for potential national security concerns.
Senators Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who generally agree about very little, sent a letter yesterday to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire formally requesting an investigation of TikTok “and other China-owned content platforms.
“TikTok’s terms of service and privacy policies describe how it collects data from its users and their devices, including user content and communications, IP address, location-related data, device identifiers, cookies, metadata, and other sensitive personal information,” the senators wrote. “While the company has stated that TikTok does not operate in China and stores US user data in the US, ByteDance is still required to adhere to the laws of China.”
China, they continue, is a problem:
Security experts have voiced concerns that China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Without an independent judiciary to review requests made by the Chinese government for data or other actions, there is no legal mechanism for Chinese companies to appeal if they disagree with a request.
Questions have also been raised regarding the potential for censorship or manipulation of certain content. TikTok reportedly censors materials deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party, including content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of Uighurs. The platform is also a potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on U.S.-based social media platforms.
The TikTok app is similar in its base concept to the late, great Vine, the Twitter-owned six-second video service that shut down in 2016. With TikTok, users create videos up to 15 seconds long featuring themselves doing —singing, dancing, comedy—and use the app’s native tools to include music or other effects.
Beijing-based ByteDance launched its first version of the app, Douyin, in China in 2016. TikTok for the US market, which runs separately, followed in 2017. Since then it has soared in popularity, among younger users. TikTok is the second most-downloaded app worldwide, behind Facebook-owned WhatsApp, dominating the iOS and Google Play charts for several quarters running, surpassing Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube and amassing more than 110 million cumulative downloads in the US.
“We are committed to transparency and accountability in how we support our TikTok users in the US and around the world,” TikTok responded in a corporate blog post. “We store all TikTok US user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.”
The company added:
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. 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.
Investment by China in every US business sector is rampant, and there’s an obvious surface-level reason: the United States, as a nation, is rich. We have an enormous economy and collectively spend quite a lot of money on goods and services. We also have a robust, highly developed business and investment infrastructure. In short: if you’re in the business of making money, you want to be in the US market.
Over the months and years of the Trump administration, however, concern about China’s investment in US businesses has continued to spiral. We’re now several months deep into a trade war of increasing rhetoric and increasing tariffs on physical goods, with challenges in the digital market mounting right behind.
Chinese mobile phone maker Huawei is now the poster child for the effect international tensions are having on the tech market. A federal law from 2018 prohibited the federal government from buying Huawei tech, and earlier this year, the company was effectively barred from the US market by executive order, causing ongoing headaches for the Android-based devices.
The concern about TikTok, however, feels more akin to a challenge a very different app faced earlier this year.
Chinese gaming company Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. acquired a majority stake in Grindr, a matchmaking app for men seeking men, in 2016 and then acquired the company outright in 2018.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a panel operating out of the Treasury Department that comprises representatives from about a dozen different departments and agencies, reviews mergers and other significant investments in which a foreign company takes a stake in a US firm for national security concerns. Kunlun was allowed to acquire Grindr without incident, but in March of this year, media reports revealed that the CFIUS was pressuring the company to unwind the acquisition for national security reasons that were not publicly specified.
Reuters reported in May that the CFIUS probe followed a discovery that a database of US user activity was made accessible to company engineers based in Beijing.
Around the same time of the Reuters report, Kunlun publicly agreed to divest Grindr to another buyer by June, 2020. By July, however, CFIUS had dropped opposition to Kunlun’s plan to take Grindr public and was once again working on an IPO.