Social media app TikTok is the latest target in US concern over Chinese tech companies
US lawmakers are increasingly warning that TikTok, the 15-second video sharing app popular with teens, could be a national security threat.
Users of the app, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, largely post lipsyncing videos and short, light hearted skits. Its popularity is astounding -- TikTok was the most downloaded app in the US last year, and has become a go-to platform for large brands to target young users. Lawmakers, however, worry that it could become a censorship tool for the Chinese government to spread its influence abroad.
Two members of Congress, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and Senator Tom Cotton, wrote a letter on October 23 asking US intelligence officials to look at the app.
With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore... Given these concerns, we ask that the Intelligence Community conduct an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok and other China-based content platforms operating in the U.S. and brief Congress on these findings.
TikTok defended itself in a blog post on October 24:
TikTok 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. Our US moderation team, which is led out of California, reviews content for adherence to our US policies – just like other US companies in our space. 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.
Schumer and Cotton's letter is only the latest of several warnings about the app from lawmakers. Earlier in October, Senator Marco Rubio requested a review of ByteDance's acquisition of Musical.ly, a US music app, which it ultimately used to build TikTok.
Their worries may not be unfounded. In September, a Washington Post investigation showed that mentions of protests in Hong Kong, while very visible and active on Twitter, were barely featured on TikTok. The Hong Kong protests are a topic of censorship and conspiracy in mainland China, where media often post videos criticising demonstrators.
TikTok replied to the Washington Post, saying that low mentions of the protests don't mean they're being censored. The Post summarized:
In its statement, the company defended TikTok as a place for entertainment, not politics, and said its audience gravitates there for positive and joyful content as a possible explanation for why so few videos relate to sensitive topics such as the protests in Hong Kong.
Later that month, the Guardian discovered TikTok content guidelines outlining an array of sensitive political topics that should be either removed from the platform or tapered in visibility.
Political and religious topics related to China were couched together with other subjects in other parts of the world, like the Cambodian genocide or the independence movements in Northern Ireland and Chechnya.
TikTok told The Guardian that it retired those guidelines, but declined to share what it says are "localised approaches, including local moderators, local content and moderation policies, local refinement of global policies, and more."
TikTok, for what it's worth, operates under a different name in China: Douyin, which is subject to the Chinese government's censorship rules, like any other service.
"The imprisonment of more than a million Uighurs, the corruption of upper-level party members, the videos of Hong Kong protesters: none of it stays" on Douyin, said Matt Schrader, an analyst at the Washington-based Alliance for Securing Democracy, in September.
The Chinese company owns TikTok and Toutiao, the AI news aggregator. It is the most valuable start-up in the world, valued at $75 billion.
China's giant, data-rich population and government-run economy make it a unique competitor in the global AI development race.