By Vanessa Ford

No stranger to controversy, TikTok has made headlines for being banned in India and for hosting content published by underage users in the UK. This time, US senators have labelled the app, and its parent company, a national security concern and an investigation is underway. Oddly enough, TikTok follows the same business model as so many of its social media predecessors … so why all the hype?

What is TikTok?

While I consider myself plugged into all platforms, I never heard of TikTok. I came from the (short lived) Vine era. Similar to Vine, TikTok is a video based social media platform and the latest source of music related memes. The platform is credited with being an influencer in the music industry given the mass exposure songs get. Users post short videos, available to everyone—unless the user restricts uploads to an approved contact list. The app uses an algorithm that determines what kind of material the user pays the most attention to, resulting in an endless stream of auto-playing content.

TikTok seems to be giving users what they want. TikTok has almost 1.5 billion downloads globally and added more than 500 million users this year (2019). Data in the US suggests younger teens are as likely to use TikTok as Facebook or Twitter, making the platform a playground for advertisers determined to target a younger demographic. In Canada TikTok is also gaining popularity. The app held the #2 top downloaded entertainment program title in the Canadian App store in October, especially after a TikTok video of NDP candidate Jasmeet Singh went viral.

TikTok began as, a rival short video app owned by a separate start-up. When Beijing-based ByteDance acquired the app in 2017, it merged the two platforms. ByteDance also has a sister app, Douyin, run on a different network in order to comply with Chinese censorship rules.

The Problem:

While this information seems harmless, it is worth noting that ByteDance also owns China’s leading news aggregator, Jinri Toutiao. ByteDance posted revenue of over USD $7 billion for the first half of 2019, and was valued at USD $78 billion in 2018, making the company a threat to other Chinese tech companies. Given the number of users, it is hard to ignore the fact that China may have significant censorship influence over the app and access to users’ information.

TikTok faced scrutiny after appearing to censor videos of  pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and videos related to the Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibetan independence. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook called out the app for censorship concerns.

US Senator Josh Hawley has gone further and suggests TikTok is not operating independently of the Chinese government and censoring content considered controversial or politically sensitive in Beijing. Beforedesignating Hawley’s statementpolitical hyperbole, Alex Stamos, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former chief security officer at Facebook, said TikTok is “operating under a political censorship regime … the Chinese government has no problem telling [its companies] where theyshould come down in political debates.” TikTok was asked to testify and clear up these allegations at a scheduled hearing about technology companies putting consumer data at risk in China, however, the company did not attend the hearing.

TikTok did go on the defensive and released a blog post in response, saying US user data is stored and moderated separately (in the US) and not shared with Chinese authorities. Not convinced, several US senators are pressing for a government investigation. The investigation hinges on whether TikTok can prove independence from ByteDance. The platform is also being investigated in the UK in relation to the use of children’s data.

In 2018, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CIFUS), a government group that reviews foreign transactions involving US companies, grew increasingly worried about foreign governments accessing sensitive user data. The panel is now investigating ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok. The panel has the authority to retroactively terminate deals, implement fines or push corporate changes. For example, after the dating app Grindr was acquired by a Chinese tech company, the company was ordered to sell Grindr (in 2020) for security reasons pertaining to military profiles.

With the ongoing
investigations, three potential results include:

  • TikTok could be geo-blocked in the US, where it has 26.5 million monthly active users;
  • TikTok could be spun-off as a separate company based outside China; or,
  • Bytedance might have to sell TikTok to another technology company.

Why is this a problem?

Tech experts say these surveillance and censorship concerns are legitimate, especially since the app is used by so many young people. Toronto-based privacy advocate Ann Cavoukian says she is  skeptical of TikTok’s defence, because “surveillance among the Chinese is non-stop.” Samantha Hoffman, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, affirms these concerns. “The [Communist] Party of China collects bulk data overseas and then uses it to help with things that relate to state security like propaganda and identifying public sentiment to understand how people feel about a particular issue,” she said. “It’s about controlling the media environment globally. Once you have control, you can use it to influence and shape the conversation.” Arkansas senator Tom Cotton likens this influence to a foreign-influence campaign, like those carried out on Facebook and Twitter in the 2016 election. 

Shaping the conversation through data collection, the suppression of free speech, and censorship are pretty serious accusations. I thought it would be rather apparent if a social media platform was engaging in such egregious conduct however after downloading the app, it appears harmless and unassuming and is not plagued by explicit advertisements—making the app the perfect breeding ground for the collection of young people’s data. But how is this any different from the other apps that are collecting, aggregating, and distributing data for profit?

US senators will say TikTok’s danger is compounded by possible Chinese censorship and surveillance. But are any other social media platforms really immune to this? Has the Cambridge Analytica scandal taught us nothing? It may be unfair to hold TikTok to a higher standard than all the other apps that capitalize on data. The key difference [JB1] here is likely the fact that this data can get into the hands of a country deemed a “political” rival – and one with a particularly dismal record with respect to human rights.

No matter what happens, the inquiry into TikTok is significant. While TikTok bears the brunt of the blame, these investigations may not only scrutinize TikTok’s practices, but perhaps those of other social media companies. If these investigations result in geo-blocking or a corporate sale, actual change for other platforms could be around the corner. Policymakers and senators alike can effect change, the question is whether they think social media platforms on North American soil should be held to the same standards as those offshore.