Published by The Lawfare Institute
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The U.S. is panicking over TikTok. After President Trump announced that he was considering “banning” the popular video-sharing app, Reuters reported that the administration has given Microsoft a 45-day deadline to finalize an acquisition of TikTok’s U.S. operations from the app’s parent company, ByteDance. In doing so, the president is responding to legislators'and policymakers’ worries about the Chinese government using the app as a vector for espionage and election interference, perhaps through tweaking the TikTok’s algorithm to favor or disfavor videos supporting one candidate or another. In response, TikTok has claimed independence from the Chinese government and argued that any U.S. government action will be unfounded and discriminatory.
So do American politicians' concerns over TikTok have any merit, or is this just an instance of overblown fearmongering? ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, has a more complicated relationship with the Chinese government than many American critics may realize. But if the government were intent on pressuring ByteDance to help with some kind of interference abroad, the company has little wiggle room.
In discussing the potential dangers of technology from China, Americans often lump TikTok together with Huawei—imagining these companies as run by faithful party members toiling ceaselessly to spread Xi Jinping Thought. But there is an important generational split between TikTok and Huawei. Huawei’s CEO Ren Zhengfei, while certainly inspired by American managerial thinking, served in the People’s Liberation Army and modeled much of his mindset on Mao Zedong, framing Huawei’s expansion as a point of national pride. But ByteDance is run by a new generation of leaders with a very different relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming, just 38, is this cohort’s leading man. He is part of a group of nerdy software engineers who are much more liberal and open to the west than their forebears. These founders were promised a China opening to the West and were all active online back when the Chinese internet was much more open than it is today. (For instance, Zhang’s posts on the microblogging platform Weibo from the early 2010s positively contrasted America’s freedom of speech with restrictions in China.) Many spent years in Silicon Valley or worked for top American tech firms in China, as Zhang did after graduate school for Microsoft. For them, to compete against Western firms overseas—as TikTok has succeeded in doing—is a natural evolution after saturating a domestic market. These CEOs probably want nothing to do with Chinese foreign policy.
At the end of the day, however, there is very little that these firms can do to push back in a party-state environment. ByteDance has already been repeatedly forced to bend the knee to party authority at home. Most punishingly, in April 2018, the government compelled ByteDance to shut down its popular “Neihan Duanzi” (“inside jokes”) app for good due to its “vulgar” content. In response, Zhang issued a letter of self-criticism, a textbook maneuver of the CCP used initially to control wayward cadres and now occasionally forced upon businesspeople. “Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values,” Zhang wrote. He also promised that the firm would in the future, “Further deepen cooperation with authoritative [official party] media, elevating distribution of authoritative media content, ensuring that authoritative [official party] media voices are broadcast to strength.” Compare this to the relatively free reign that American tech leaders enjoy.
These nods to the party are readily apparent to users in China. I noticed that after the government crackdown on ByteDance products in 2018, advertorial-style Douyin videos about the Chinese police and army started to appear more frequently—driven, presumably, by internal tweaks to the recommendation algorithm. Yet while such actions may reinforce ByteDance’s standing domestically, the firm’s connection to and reliance on the CCP’s goodwill risks becoming a liability as the platform’s market abroad grows.
For the first few years of TikTok’s existence, ByteDance did its best to sidestep these political issues by making a “fun-only” app completely divorced from politics. The original app allowed users to record just their “美好生活”—“a beautiful life,” as the tagline for Douyin, the domestic Chinese version of TikTok, reads. This would include shopping sprees, snapshots of happy farmers, exercise videos and lighthearted jokes, but certainly no videos of police brutality, camps in Xinjiang or domestic protests within China.
Even as TikTok’s user base outside China grew, it seemed that TikTok might be able to keep politically charged content off the platform by banning political advertising and upholding a more restrictive content policy than Facebook or YouTube. The platform received some bad press early on when, in November 2019, it banned an American user who had posted a video discussing China’s treatment of Uighurs. However, the recent surge of U.S. political activism following George Floyd’s killing will likely make it difficult for TikTok to keep any further meddling along these lines under the radar. Once Gen Z had its political awakening earlier this year, they simply would not have put up with a platform that suppressed their speech on political topics. Indeed, Americans on the app complained loudly when, in the week after Floyd’s death, posts with the hashtags #blacklivesmatter and #georgefloyd displayed on the app as having zero views—leading TikTok to apologize and blame the issue on a “technical glitch.”
On July 29, TikTok USA CEO Kevin Mayer reiterated the platform’s claims to neutrality, declaring that “We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda—our only objective is to remain a vibrant, dynamic platform for everyone to enjoy.” As much as he would like that to be true, the fact is that once TikTok outgrew its origins as a lip-syncing and dancing app for preteens and into a major national platform, it was untenable to stop Western users from uploading political content.
Now that TikTok’s users have mobilized politically, ByteDance’s power to channel that energy with its algorithm is worrisome. Many analyses of TikTok’s potential dangers highlight the issue of data privacy—but the threat of political interference through algorithmic manipulation is, in my view, more concerning. While TikTok vacuums up user data, so too do Facebook and Google; meanwhile, and thanks to China’s successful hacking of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 2015, Chinese intelligence services have more interesting personal data on current and former U.S. government employees and contractors than they know what to do with. Anything it could learn about these individuals through their TikTok usage is probably not nearly as relevant.
The potential for Chinese government interference in ByteDance is considerable—and like other tech firms in China, there’s little the company can do about it. The Chinese government is no stranger to using orchestrated networks on Western platforms to influence foreign opinion and interfere in elections. It has run massive Twitter operations and surreptitiously bankrolls pro-CCP Youtube channels. It worked to get pro-Beijing candidate Han Kuo-Yu elected as mayor in the Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung and posted thousands of tweets opposing the reelection of anti-reunification Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in 2020. Before, when TikTok was mostly apolitical, it would have been difficult to interfere in an election by meddling with the platform—such an effort would require more subtle forms of manipulation, like pushing happier videos to people you wanted to encourage to vote. But now that TikTok is chock-full of political content—and with tens of millions of daily active users in America—pushing certain videos to promote one candidate over another would be trivial.
Chinese tech firms are not enthusiastic partners in these sorts of foreign policy endeavors. Aside from the occasional government offer of free office space and tax benefits, these companies would generally prefer to have nothing to do with the government. Take the ridesharing company DiDi’s initial response to police requests for data—in one instance, after twice outright refusing the request on privacy grounds, DiDi finally printed out a few boxes of documents that for the police’s purposes were nearly useless. Likewise, Zhang, ByteDance’s CEO, is surely not happy to have to issue apology letters and face mandated shutdowns of popular products.
But China’s national intelligence law, according to one interpretation, gives total authority to the government to compel firms—and with no independent judiciary, even extralegal pressure is very hard to resist. CCP regulators can take massive bites out of market capitalization at will, and have in the past thrown ByteDance senior leadership in jail on corruption charges. This makes keeping officials at home happy ByteDance’s first priority, regardless of reputational risks abroad.
So faced with increasing pressure from the United States, what can TikTok do? Kevin Xu, author of the Interconnected blog, has proposed the most reasonable path for the company to get around this dilemma. TikTok, he suggests, should make public who has access to what parts of the app’s code base; this, he writes, could help “prove that Chinese engineers are indeed off limits from American user data.” This logic could potentially extend to the TikTok algorithm, sealing the CCP off from forcing employees based in the mainland from any nefarious manipulation.
It’s not clear whether it would be technically feasible to make TikTok open-source to such a degree as to preclude the possibility of any funny business. But regardless, it doesn’t look like Zhang is all that interested in pursuing the open-source path—and currently, ByteDance is sticking to Huawei’s script of loudly proclaiming that it would never accede to Chinese government requests. What’s more, even if ByteDance makes gestures toward this with initiatives like transparency centers purportedly allowing independent observers to peek into the TikTok algorithm, the fundamental issue is a problem of trust and accountability. While Zhang has been trying to offshore more of the functions of ByteDance’s overseas products, this process is so early along that the U.S.-based engineers don’t even report to Mayer, TikTok USA’s CEO.
I am sympathetic to arguments that it would be a bad look for the U.S. to ban consumer-facing tech firms—behavior that echoes China’s ban of Facebook. However, the motivations for China banning Facebook and a potential U.S. government demand for ByteDance to divest TikTok USA would be completely different. TikTok’s ban wouldn’t impinge on the First Amendment in the slightest, and the Chinese state-backed propaganda is still distributed in the U.S.: CGTN comes in my cable channel package and Chinese state-made videos get millions of views on YouTube.
Samm Sacks has recommended that the U.S. develop country-agnostic regulation to ensure a safe and level playing field for speech on online platforms. It would be a tall order to create this sort of regulatory regime in time for the 2020 elections, and even so I don’t think a mass market Chinese consumer-facing social media app would have an easy time meeting its standards.
So what should be done? I think the U.S. government has no choice but to limit TikTok’s access to the U.S. market or force a sale.
The government has several options, as Bobby Chesney has explained. According to Reuters, the 45-day deadline on a ByteDance-Microsoft deal was set by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). The committee could compel ByteDance to sell TikTok’s American operations to a U.S. company, in the same way that it has already forced the Chinese buyers of Grindr and PatientsLikeMe to divest their acquisitions. This would certainly be a messy and expensive process, as TikTok USA relies on a Beijing-based codebase and the vast majority of ByteDance’s engineers are located in China.
The administration also has the option to have the Commerce Department put ByteDance on the entity list, a move that would effectively stop American firms from doing business with the company. This tactic, used previously on Chinese hardware companies like ZTE and Huawei, would force American firms to stop buying ads on TikTok and prevent the App Store and Google Play from allowing ByteDance to push TikTok updates—two moves that would dramatically impact the long term future of the business. As Beau Barnes, S. Nathan Park and Wade Weems write in Foreign Policy, Trump could also invoke new powers granted to the Commerce Department under the 2019 International Emergency Economic Powers Act and force Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores. If the sale to Microsoft falls through or Trump decides that actually banning TikTok is the right way to go, he has the authority to unilaterally cripple TikTok’s global operations.
TikTok is not the only China-based app that has raised concerns within the U.S. of late. There’s also WeChat—a messaging app owned by Chinese company Tencent, which the White House has floated restricting access to. But WeChat’s situation is different, and less urgent, than TikTok’s.
Unlike TikTok, WeChat is first and foremost a messaging app, and the prime bridge for anyone outside of China communicating with the mainland. If the standard is whether these apps give the Chinese government an undue opportunity to subversively influence American public opinion, perhaps the best argument in WeChat’s defense is its scale: The app only has a few million daily active users in America, who spend most of their time on WeChat talking with friends and colleagues as opposed to ingesting algorithmically-recommended content. There certainly is censorship and surveillance on versions of WeChat outside the U.S., but these factors alone don’t merit a ban for the time being.
If companies like ByteDance and Tencent are hoping to buy some time, a good place to build trust would be allowing outside researchers and governments to see exactly how content performs on their apps. But given where things stand now, it seems unlikely that WeChat will ultimately be able to deliver the transparency that the U.S. should require from large-scale platforms.