To this point, Challenge Texas seems to be primarily an train in geography, one which appears well-positioned to deal with considerations in regards to the Chinese language authorities accessing People’ private data. However it doesn’t deal with different ways in which China might weaponize the platform, like tweaking TikTok algorithms to extend publicity to divisive content material, or adjusting the platform to seed or encourage disinformation campaigns.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Our on-line world Coverage program on the Council on International Relations, informed BuzzFeed Information that the Chinese language authorities’s affect on TikTok’s algorithms is a extra urgent concern than knowledge exfiltration. “I’ve by no means seen a very good argument about what the Chinese language might get from TikTok knowledge that they will’t get from tons of of different sources,” he stated. However he did level to examples of the Chinese language Communist Celebration utilizing expertise to warp digital discourse, together with TikTok’s previous censorship of speech dangerous to China’s “nationwide honor,” and a 2020 attempt by a China-based Zoom worker to disrupt video conferences commemorating the Tiananmen Sq. bloodbath.
TikTok vehemently denies accusations that it censors speech essential of China in the present day. And members of TikTok’s Belief & Security crew, which makes and enforces content material insurance policies for the corporate, portrayed it as comparatively effectively insulated from ByteDance affect. Staff described Belief & Security staff as having much less frequent contact with Beijing, and clearer traces of reporting, than different staff that BuzzFeed Information spoke to — and described TikTok’s Belief & Security practices as just like these adopted by US-based tech giants. Nonetheless, the query of reporting construction looms massive: Like different senior TikTok officers, its head of Belief & Security stories to TikTok’s CEO, who stories to ByteDance as TikTok’s company proprietor. And so long as the buck stops with ByteDance, “there’s a ceiling” to how a lot TikTok can distance itself from the Chinese language authorities, Lewis stated.
US lawmakers have made clear that their considerations about TikTok transcend the place knowledge is saved. In a 2019 tweet, Sen. Chuck Schumer stated that underneath Chinese language legislation, TikTok and ByteDance “could be compelled to cooperate with intelligence work managed by China’s Communist Celebration.” At an October 2021 Senate hearing, TikTok’s Head of Public Coverage for the Americas Michael Beckerman testified that TikTok’s privateness coverage permits it to share the knowledge it collects (together with US consumer knowledge) with ByteDance. He declined to reply questions from Sen. Ted Cruz about whether or not the coverage permits TikTok to share that knowledge with Beijing ByteDance Expertise, one other ByteDance subsidiary that’s partially owned by the Chinese language Communist Celebration.
On the similar listening to, Sen. Marsha Blackburn requested Beckerman whether or not ByteDance staff had entry to TikTok’s algorithm. Beckerman, indirectly answering the query, stated that US consumer knowledge is stored within the US. Blackburn additionally requested whether or not there are programmers, product builders, and knowledge groups in China engaged on TikTok. Beckerman confirmed that there are.
Lawmakers past the US have additionally raised considerations about TikTok’s relationship with China. In June 2020, the Indian authorities banned TikTok, WeChat, and greater than 50 different Chinese language apps after a conflict on the India–China border that killed 20 Indian troopers. India’s regulatory physique, the Ministry of Electronics and Data Expertise, alleged that the apps had been “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting” Indian consumer knowledge to knowledge facilities exterior of India. In August 2020, intelligence businesses in Australia began investigating whether or not TikTok poses a safety risk to the nation. In September 2021, Eire’s Information Safety Fee opened an investigation into how TikTok transfers consumer knowledge to international locations exterior the EU.
The similarities between totally different international locations’ regulatory considerations about TikTok and China emphasize the potential significance of Challenge Texas. If it succeeds within the US, the challenge might function a roadmap for TikTok in different jurisdictions (maybe even in India, the place it has been banned). It could additionally function a mannequin for different massive firms, like Amazon, Fb, and Google, which face comparable considerations from abroad regulators about gathering their residents’ private data.
Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford–New America DigiChina Challenge on the Stanford College Cyber Coverage Heart, sees TikTok as “a guinea pig” for lawmakers’ inherent skepticism about overseas firms gathering their residents’ knowledge. Nonetheless, Webster says he’s optimistic, as a result of ByteDance has a heavy incentive to get regulators totally snug with TikTok.
“It is a firm that’s searching for a manner for this to truly work,” he stated. “They’re going to maintain making an attempt till there’s an apparent defeat, as a result of the amount of cash on the desk is big.” ●