Last Wednesday, U.S. Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called for an investigation into the operations of Chinese social media service TikTok. The two legislators believe that the video platform might be a threat to national security. Accordingly, the duo sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire, asking him to determine if the Sino government has subverted the firm’s hugely popular application.
The Government versus TikTok
Senators Cotton and Schumer have two concerns about TikTok, which has been downloaded over 110 million times in the United States. First, the lawmakers are worried that the Chinese government will force TikTok to turn over personal data on U.S. citizens. The pair’s anxiety comes from the fact that the Communist nation has laws requiring all citizens and organizations to aid Sino intelligence services if the need arises.
As ByteDance (TikTok’s developer) is based in China, it would also be subject to Sino security service mandates. However, the firm does not offer TikTok in the People’s Republic. Instead, it provides a similar service called Douyin in the region. The Chinese application is run on local servers and is compliant with the nation’s censorship laws.
Cotton and Schumer also asked Director Maguire to find out if TikTok censors the content that American users can access. The legislators’ request echoes one that Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) made of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Earlier this month, Rubio asked Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to find out if TikTok filters content deemed unacceptable by Beijing.
In September, The Guardian reported that TikTok directs moderators to scrub the platform of content referencing Tiananmen Square or the Hong Kong protests.
On October 24, ByteDance published a blog post addressing the accusations made by its critics. In it, the corporation stated that it does not censor its video platform in accordance with Beijing’s wishes. Moreover, the corporation says that its U.S. operations are not subject to the authority of the Chinese government.
The company flatly refuted the allegations outlined in The Guardian report. Indeed, the firm says that no foreign government holds influence over its California-based moderation team. Moreover, the corporation explicitly stated that it had not been asked by Beijing to censor any content. Furthermore, ByteDance has said that it will deny any such request from the Communist nation.
In response to Senators Cotton, Schumer, and Rubio’s allegations, the firm notes that it does not store TikTok user data in China. Rather, the corporation hosts its platform’s consumer information in the United States and maintains a backup in Singapore. Consequently, the organization asserts that Chinese law does not apply to its American hosted data.
Notably, Huawei made very similar arguments when the Trump administration accused it of secretly serving the Chinese government. Admittedly, no organization has publicly offered proof that Beijing used the conglomerate’s technology for spying purposes. However, Washington ultimately forced the company out of the U.S. market anyway.
Accordingly, Congress might find a way to convince the federal government to take similar action against TikTok.