So far, the Texas project appears to be primarily an exercise in geography, which seems well-placed to address concerns about the Chinese government’s access to Americans’ personal information. But it doesn’t address other ways China could weaponize the platform, such as tweaking TikTok algorithms to increase exposure to divisive content, or tweaking the platform to seed or encourage disinformation campaigns.
Adam Segal, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Digital and Cyberspace Policy program, told BuzzFeed News that Chinese government influence over TikTok’s algorithms is a more pressing concern than data exfiltration. “I’ve never seen a particularly good argument that the Chinese could get data from TikTok that they can’t get from hundreds of other sources,” he said. But he cited examples of the Chinese Communist Party using technology to distort digital speech, including that of TikTok. previous censorship speeches harmful to China’s “national honor” and a 2020 attempt by a China-based Zoom employee to disrupt video meetings commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
ICT Tac vehemently denies accusations that he is censoring speech critical of China today. And members of TikTok’s Trust & Safety team, which develops and enforces content policies for the company, described it as relatively well insulated from ByteDance’s influence. Employees described Trust & Safety workers as having less frequent contact with Beijing and clearer lines of communication than other employees BuzzFeed News spoke to – and described TikTok’s Trust & Safety practices as similar to those adopted by US-based tech giants. Nonetheless, the issue of reporting structure looms large: like other senior TikTok officials, its trust and safety officer reports to TikTok’s CEO, who reports to ByteDance as TikTok’s owner. And as long as the buck stops with ByteDance, “there’s a ceiling” to the distance TikTok can take from the Chinese government, Lewis said.
During the same hearing, Senator Marsha Blackburn asked Beckerman if ByteDance employees had access to TikTok’s algorithm. Beckerman, not answering the question directly, said US user data is stored in the United States. Blackburn also asked if there are any programmers, product developers and data teams in China working on TikTok. Beckerman confirmed there were.
Lawmakers beyond the United States have also raised concerns about TikTok’s relationship with China. In June 2020, the Indian government banned TikTok, WeChat and more than 50 other Chinese apps after an Indo-China border clash that killed 20 Indian soldiers. India’s regulator, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, alleged the apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting” Indian users’ data to data centers outside India. In August 2020, intelligence agencies in Australia began to investigate whether TikTok poses a threat to the country’s security. In September 2021, the Irish Data Protection Commission opened an investigation on how TikTok transfers user data to countries outside the EU.
The similarities between different countries’ regulatory concerns regarding TikTok and China underscore the potential importance of the Texas project. If successful in the US, the project could serve as a roadmap for TikTok in other jurisdictions (perhaps even India, where it has been banned). It may also serve as a model for other large companies, such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, which face similar concerns from foreign regulators over the collection of their citizens’ personal information.
Graham Webster, editor of the Stanford–New America DigiChina Project at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center, calls TikTok “a guinea pig” for lawmakers’ inherent skepticism of foreign companies collecting their citizens’ data. Still, Webster says he’s optimistic, as ByteDance has a strong incentive to put regulators at ease with TikTok.
“This is a company looking for a way to make it actually work,” he said. “They’re going to keep trying until there’s a clear loss, because the amount of money on the table is huge.” ●