To date, Undertaking Texas seems to be primarily an train in geography, one which appears well-positioned to handle considerations concerning the Chinese language authorities accessing People’ private info. But it surely doesn’t deal with different ways in which China may 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 Overseas Relations, advised BuzzFeed Information that the Chinese language authorities’s affect on TikTok’s algorithms is a extra urgent concern than information exfiltration. “I’ve by no means seen a very good argument about what the Chinese language may get from TikTok information that they will’t get from a whole bunch of different sources,” he mentioned. 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 vital of China immediately. And members of TikTok’s Belief & Security staff, 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 workers that BuzzFeed Information spoke to — and described TikTok’s Belief & Security practices as much 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 mentioned.
US lawmakers have made clear that their considerations about TikTok transcend the place information is saved. In a 2019 tweet, Sen. Chuck Schumer mentioned 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 data it collects (together with US person information) with ByteDance. He declined to reply questions from Sen. Ted Cruz about whether or not the coverage permits TikTok to share that information with Beijing ByteDance Know-how, 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 workers had entry to TikTok’s algorithm. Beckerman, circuitously answering the query, mentioned that US person information is stored within the US. Blackburn additionally requested whether or not there are programmers, product builders, and information 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 Info Know-how, alleged that the apps had been “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting” Indian person information to information facilities outdoors of India. In August 2020, intelligence companies in Australia began investigating whether or not TikTok poses a safety risk to the nation. In September 2021, Eire’s Knowledge Safety Fee opened an investigation into how TikTok transfers person information to nations outdoors the EU.
The similarities between totally different nations’ regulatory considerations about TikTok and China emphasize the potential significance of Undertaking Texas. If it succeeds within the US, the undertaking could 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 amassing their residents’ private info.
Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford–New America DigiChina Undertaking on the Stanford College Cyber Coverage Heart, sees TikTok as “a guinea pig” for lawmakers’ inherent skepticism about international firms amassing their residents’ information. Nonetheless, Webster says he’s optimistic, as a result of ByteDance has a heavy incentive to get regulators totally snug with TikTok.
“This can be a firm that’s searching for a approach for this to truly work,” he mentioned. “They’re going to maintain attempting till there’s an apparent defeat, as a result of the sum of money on the desk is big.” ●