As a growing list of companies and government officials issue warnings about the use of TikTok, citing privacy and security concerns, the popular video sharing app is denying that it shares its users’ data with the government of China.
Questions about TikTok and its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance are not new. TikTok has in the past faced concerns about its growing influence in the United States. It has also been accused of censoring user content critical of China. In November of last year, TikTok apologized to 17-year-old user Feroza Aziz after a video she posted criticizing China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims was removed on the platform, calling the decision a "human error" that should not have happened.
In the last few weeks, though, pressure on TikTok has hit new levels. The app has left Hong Kong, India has banned it, and politicians have suggested the U.S. should do the same. Amazon told employees to remove TikTok from their work phones (it quickly said an email telling them to delete it was sent in error), and Wells Fargo also told employees they must delete the app. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview that the Trump Administration is “looking” at banning TikTok and other Chinese social media apps.
The question being raised—by Silicon Valley, by politicians, by governments—is what should be done about TikTok? The bulk of the public argument thus far has been that, because ByteDance is a Chinese company, it cannot be trusted to be independent from the Chinese Communist Party, and could use TikTok as either a spying or influence tool in other countries. Proponents of a ban are speaking in absolutes about what is a complicated and nuanced situation. TikTok is the first major, well-funded foreign social media company that has become massively popular with Americans, especially a new generation of social media users. And so it is a legitimate threat to Facebook and YouTube from a competition perspective. It's hard to say how much of the current concern is American protectionism, how much is legitimate fear of surveillance and foreign influence, and how much of it is xenophobia.
The debate over TikTok is similar to that over Huawei, another Chinese technology company that has been widely banned in the United States and several other countries. The Huawei ban has been predicated on classified information about supposed vulnerabilities or surveillance operations that have never become public. Similarly, politicians who want to ban TikTok have thus far been unable to point to a specific vulnerability or example of the app sharing American data with the Chinese government.
TikTok's public-facing issues aren't all that different from those facing YouTube or Facebook—it has trouble with content moderation, it has an ad-based business model that relies on monetizing the data of its users, and it could very well be subject to data collection orders from governments. The difference with TikTok is that the government that could be demanding that information is China. But banning TikTok in the United States would be an extreme measure, and one that's devastating to the free expression of its users.
“Any motivated actor, from a government to a malicious hacker or disgruntled employee, has reason to drive a dump truck through the loopholes in TikTok’s terms of service,” Peter Micek, a digital human rights expert at Access Now said in an email to Motherboard. “Only comprehensive data protection regulations, and able and well-resourced enforcement, can reduce this exploitation.”
But “banning apps is an extreme measure that does not meet international human rights standards,” Micek said. “Under international human rights law, blocking an entire service or application is not regarded as necessary and proportionate and has been declared unlawful in several instances.”
In an email to Motherboard, a TikTok spokesperson said the company has hundreds of employees and key leaders in the United States tasked with safety, security, product, and public policy, and noted that the company is led by an American CEO. In May, former Disney executive Kevin Mayer resigned from his position at Disney to become the chief executive of TikTok.
“We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users,” the spokesperson said. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked."
“TikTok collects much less U.S. user information than many of the companies in our space and stores it in the U.S. and Singapore. We have not, and would not, give it to the Chinese government,” TikTok said.
The company also recently released its Transparency Report to provide insight on how the company handles moderation and requests for information.
Lots has happened this month, if you're trying to catch up, here's a TikTok timeline:
Legislation banning the use of TikTok by U.S. federal employees
On March 4, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcomittee on Crime and Terrorism, announced he would introduce legislation banning the use of TikTok by all federal employees on government devices.
“TikTok was the most downloaded app of 2019. More than any other app in the country. More teenagers are on TikTok now than use Facebook. It counts millions and millions and millions of Americans as users. But it is owned by a Chinese company that includes Chinese Communist Party Members in leadership, and it is required under Chinese law to share user data with Beijing,” Senator Hawley said.
India bans TikTok and other Chinese apps
On June 29, the Indian government included TikTok among 59 Chinese apps that would be banned in the country, citing national security concerns. The announcement came not long after a clash between China and India in the Himalayas left 20 Indian soldiers dead.
According to Sensor Tower, India is TikTok’s largest market with 611 million downloads of the app made in the country.
Trump administration 'looking' at banning TikTok
On July 6 in an interview with Fox News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump Administration is “looking” at banning TikTok and other Chinese social media apps.
When asked about a ban, Secretary Pompeo said: “We’re taking this very seriously. We’re certainly looking at it. We’ve worked on this very issue for a long time. Whether it was the problems of having Huawei technology in your infrastructure, we’ve gone all over the world and we’re making real progress of getting that out.”
TikTok pulls out of Hong Kong
On July 7, TikTok announced it would be withdrawing its app from Hong Kong after China imposed a new security law in the semi-autonomous city. The law is seen by many as giving sweeping powers to Beijing.
TikTok’s move to leave Hong Kong is a stronger stance than other social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have taken, which said they would be pausing cooperation with requests for information from Hong Kong’s law enforcement officials.
Amazon asks employees to remove TikTok in 'error'
On July 10, Amazon sent out an email to its employees asking them to delete TikTok from their phones, citing concerns over security. The company sent out a statement later that day saying the email was sent out in error.
“This morning’s email to some of our employees was sent in error. There is no change to our policies right now with regard to TikTok,” the statement said.
Employees at Wells Fargo asked to remove TikTok from work phones
On July 11, NBC reported that employees at Wells Fargo were told to delete TikTok from their work phones, with a spokesperson citing concerns over privacy and security.
“We have identified a small number of Wells Fargo employees with corporate-owned devices who had installed the TikTok application on their device. Due to concerns about TikTok’s privacy and security controls and practices, and because corporate-owned devices should be used for company business only, we have directed those employees to remove the app from their devices,” the spokesperson told Motherboard in an email.
The DNC and RNC advise against using TikTok
Also over the weekend, both the Democratic and Republican national committees warned their staff and campaigns about using TikTok on their phones.
On Friday, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) repeated a warning to its campaigns, state parties, and committees asking that they refrain from downloading TikTok on their personal devices. This follows a previous warning put out by the DNC in December.
On Saturday, Republican National Committee (RNC) National Press Secretary Mandi Merrit said the RNC had advised their employees not to download TikTok on their personal devices out of security concerns.
White House trade advisor Peter Navarro’s calls TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer a 'puppet'
In an interview with Fox News on July 12, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro said that TikTok hiring former Disney executive Kevin Mayer as its CEO is similar to a move made by Chinese telecom giant Huawei and called Mayer a "puppet."
“They’re running the same playbook as Huawei, right? Put an American puppet in charge of Huawei as the CEO, and say, ‘hey, everythings going to be fine, we’re going to be separate.’ They’re trying that game with TikTok. Not going to work,” Navarra said. He then went on to say to expect “strong” action by President Trump, without elaborating what was meant.
Chinese telecom giant Huawei has faced bans by the Trump administration and has long been accused of serving as a backdoor for spying by the Chinese government As reported by VICE in 2018, there’s no public evidence that Huawei devices are being used to spy on Americans and some see the efforts to blacklist the company as being the result of protectionism and geopolitical tension between the United States and China.