In some methods, the social media app TikTok couldn’t have rose to prominence at a worse second. The platform for sharing short-form video clips is owned by the Chinese startup Bytedance, and surged in recognition simply because the United States’ relations with China are turning icier than they’ve been in years. At the identical time, US regulators are extra carefully scrutinizing the information privateness practices of social media firms than ever earlier than, after scandals like Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica debacle erupted final yr. Republican lawmakers routinely accuse the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube of censoring conservative voices.
Now TikTok is coming underneath fireplace for most of the similar points. On high of that, it has to discover a option to clarify its relationship with Beijing. Oh, and the app is especially fashionable with youngsters and younger individuals. Put all of it collectively, and it’s like catnip for politicians with an agenda to push.
During a listening to on Capitol Hill Tuesday, lawmakers and nationwide safety consultants questioned whether or not TikTok actually operates independently from China as the corporate has claimed. “Parents, if you don’t know what TikTok is, you should,” senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri), one in all tech’s loudest critics in Congress, mentioned on the Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. “A company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they’re watching, and what they share with each other.”
TikTok declined to ship an government to attend the listening to. (Apple additionally was a no-show.) Instead, Vanessa Pappas, the corporate’s normal US supervisor, launched a prolonged assertion on its web site. “Every day, our US team makes decisions that we see as best for the US market, and we are given the independence to do so,” she wrote. Pappas additionally mentioned that TikTok shops information on US customers inside the nation, and that its content material moderation workforce for the US market is equally based mostly in California.
The listening to befell simply hours after The Washington Post printed an article by which former TikTok employees mentioned they had been instructed by managers in China to censor movies on the platform, validating lawmakers’ current fears in regards to the firm. Last month, senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) despatched a letter to US intelligence officers asking them to research nationwide safety dangers posed by TikTok, together with “the potential for censorship or manipulation of certain content.” TikTok instructed The Washington Post that it initially wished to reasonable its platform in keeping with a centralized algorithm, however later rethought the “one size fits all” method. It now has completely different insurance policies for every area it operates in.
Also on Tuesday, senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) despatched a letter to Alex Zhu, the top of TikTok, asking the corporate to reply a collection of questions associated to youngsters’s privateness by November 26. Earlier this yr, TikTok reached a greater than $5 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over claims that it illegally gathered private data on youngsters youthful than 13. The settlement involved the practices of Musical.ly, an American karaoke app Bytedance bought in 2017 and later absorbed into TikTok.
“It is crucial that Chinese-linked efforts to collect data from American children ends,” Blackburn wrote. “Because TikTok is owned by ByteDance, the app is subject to foreign laws that allow China’s government to seize information and technology.”
It’s not but clear whether or not mounting scrutiny from lawmakers will meaningfully affect TikTok’s operations within the US. Last week, Reuters first reported that the Committee on Foreign Investment within the United States (CFIUS) had opened an investigation into Bytedance’s $1 billion acquisition of Musical.ly two years in the past. The worst case results of the investigation can be that CFIUS tries to compel TikTok to divest its belongings associated to Musical.ly. Earlier this yr, the Chinese gaming firm Beijing Kunlun Tech Co. mentioned it might promote the US courting app Grindr after CFIUS raised nationwide safety considerations.
The further consideration TikTok has obtained from regulators and journalists has filtered right down to customers, a few of whom have questioned whether or not they’re being censored by China. After The Washington Post reported in regards to the lack of content material on TikTok in regards to the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, some customers started experimenting to see whether or not their movies in regards to the demonstrations can be eliminated, for example. Similar stunts had been carried out earlier this yr when the Chinese tech large Tencent introduced it might spend money on Reddit.