Two prominent US senators, Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton, are urging the US government to examine the national security implications of TikTok. The short-video app, owned by Beijing-based Bytedance, is China’s first app with mass overseas adoption.
“With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore,” the two senators wrote on Wednesday (Oct. 23) in a letter addressed to the acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire.
The threat of an examination like that is ominous for TikTok, which has become a teen sensation since launching in the US last year. Those who’ve tracked US-China relations remember 2012 as sounding the death knell for Huawei hopes in the US, after the House Intelligence committee said that year that Huawei telecom equipment posed security risks because of the firm’s reported ties to the Chinese government, an allegation Huawei disputes.
The senators’ letter referenced US moves on Huawei—which included barring it from accessing US tech components earlier this year—as the right “initial steps” towards the threat posed by Chinese tech firms, but said more needed to be done. With respect to TikTok, it expressed concerns about the data privacy of its users, censorship and possible foreign influence operations as elections approach.
TikTok said in statement that it stores all US user data in the US, with backup in Singapore, and it “does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China.” “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” it said, adding that, “We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”
TikTok’s situation shows the tightrope Chinese tech companies have to walk between a US ever more worried about China and an increasingly authoritarian Beijing. Beijing-based Bytedance was founded in 2012 by Zhang Yimin, a 30something software programmer with the ambitious goal of building the company into “the world’s largest platform for information creation and distribution.” He quickly created a buzz with viral apps like the news aggregator Toutiao and Douyin, the domestic, censored version of TikTok. But he also just as quickly fell afoul of the Chinese government, and at one point issued a public apology for a joke-sharing app that failed to promote “core socialist values.”
While TikTok is a very different kind of firm than Huawei, specializing in entertainment rather than critical infrastructure, its success in the US comes as trade and tech ties between the two countries are especially fraught. Worries about the reach of China’s censorship have also gained attention at the highest levels in the wake of Beijing’s backlash against the NBA over a tweet supportive of Hong Kong.
“The concerns (surrounding TikTok) have been partly triggered by the growing sense of ‘de-coupling’ between the world’s two largest economies. Recent efforts by Beijing to compel Western corporates to adhere to Chinese political norms… have further exacerbated the issue, and US politicians are increasingly interested in ensuring that Chinese companies in the US adhere to US standards of free speech,” said Brock Silvers, managing director at Hong Kong-based Adamas Asset Management. “As China continues to aggressively enforce its norms in China, expect the US to increasingly do the same.”
In recent days, some in the US have asked if TikTok was removing content about the Hong Kong protests. A recent Buzzfeed report, however, found videos on the Hong Kong protests could be uploaded to the app, and were not removed. Meanwhile, the Guardian reported on the existence of guidelines directing moderators to censor of videos pertaining to sensitive political issues for China, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The company said that the guidelines cited by The Guardian are no longer in use, and that current rules do not reference specific issues. In a sign of growing awareness of the risks US concerns pose to its expansion, TikTok has brought in former US lawmakers as part of an external team to advise it on content moderation and privacy.
One line in this week’s letter suggests old-fashioned competition might be as much at play as national security concerns. TikTok passed 1 billion downloads worldwide this year, according to data provider Sensor Tower. Facebook, which is blocked in China, clearly sees it as a rival, and in his remarks on free speech last week, founder Mark Zuckerberg took a dig at TikTok.
The senators complained in their letter that China “continues to shut out U.S.-based technology firms while promoting and expanding the global reach of its own companies.” The letter comes just two weeks after US senator Macro Rubio asked the US government to look into TikTok’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, which helped its US expansion.