U.S. Pushback Against TikTok, Global Trends Toward Cyber Sovereignty

TikTok, the popular social media platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance, has been under intense pressure from the U.S. government over the past few weeks. It now faces a Congressional bill, “Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act,” which would force ByteDance to divest TikTok to avoid the app being effectively banned in the U.S. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the bill 352 to 65 after it was unanimously approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee earlier this month. President Biden stated his intention to sign the bill into law should it be passed by the Senate, where it now awaits consideration.

That TikTok managed to provoke such a swift bipartisan pushback in an era of intense polarization is in part a testament to perceptions of China’s growing global technological prowess and concerns about how this could be leveraged by the Chinese Party-state for external propaganda purposes. The pushback, occurring both in the U.S. and around the world, suggests a shift towards cyber sovereignty when it comes to dealing with foreign social media platforms. Regardless of the merits, this bears some similarities to the Chinese government’s own stated preference for cyber sovereignty.

The platform has been widely successful. As The Economist noted, “In less than a decade a Chinese-linked TikTok has managed to upend the social-media business in America and beyond. An untethered one would keep being disruptive—if it is allowed to exist.” Writing for TIME, Scott Nover described TikTok’s impact on the social media ecosystem in more detail:

Since it launched in 2016, TikTok has been the most influential social media app in the world, not because it affects public policy or necessarily creates monoculture—neither are particularly true, in fact—but because it has given people a totally different way to spend time online. In doing so, it disrupted the monopolies of American tech companies like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, and forced every rival to in some way mimic its signature style. There’s Facebook and Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts, Snapchat Spotlight, and every other app seems to be an infinitely-scrolling video these days. [Source]

Didi Tang at the AP described how in order to maintain their success, big Chinese tech firms have had to deal with competing pressures from both foreign and Chinese governments

Since its inception, the TikTok platform has been intended for non-Chinese markets and is unavailable in mainland China.

[…] TikTok’s parent company is following the same playbook as many other Chinese companies with global ambitions: To win customers and trust in the United States and other Western countries, they are playing down their Chinese roots and connections. Some have insisted they be called “global companies” instead of “Chinese companies.”

[…] “These companies and businesses face squeezing from both sides as they struggle to survive,” said [Zhiqun Zhu, professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University]. “While the U.S. and other Western countries have imposed sanctions or restrictions on these companies, China itself has moved to favor state-owned enterprises in recent years, leaving little room for Chinese tech and private businesses to operate.”

[…] Short of severance from the home country, Chinese companies chasing global ambitions have tried to distance themselves from China by introducing many foreign investors, hiring foreign executives, moving headquarters to outside China, and limiting operations to overseas markets, said Thomas Zhang, China analyst at FrontierView, a U.S.-headquartered market intelligence provider. But “the effects are limited as long as the founder in China does not relinquish control,” Zhang said. [Source]

Summarizing the debate in the U.S. in a blog post at China Law Translate, Jeremy Daum offered an outline of the various rationales that have been put forward for why TikTok poses a threat:

Data Security Concerns – The risk that by running a large-scale app in the US, Tiktok, and thus its parent company Byte-dance, and thus the PRC government, will gain access to large volumes of user data.

Propaganda Concerns – the risk that the app will use its algorithm or direct censorship to impact what information US users view; shaping users’ perception of world events to align with China’s.

Content harmful to minors concern – use of the app may expose minors to content that is inappropriate or harmful to them. This includes content fostering addiction to the app, encouraging imitation of dangerous conduct.

Reciprocity – China notoriously blocks US owned apps from use in China, it’s only fair we block them back. [Source]

There is ample evidence fueling concerns about TikTok’s propaganda capabilities. A recent report by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated that the Chinese government used TikTok to influence the U.S. 2022 midterm elections. In July, Forbes reported that TikTok served thousands of ads from Chinese state-media outlets to millions of users across numerous countries. Another report revealed TikTok’s apparent international censorship of topics that are often suppressed by the Chinese government within China, such as Tibet, Hong Kong protests, Ugyhurs, and the Tiananmen Massacre. Before the House vote, TikTok sent a pop-up to users urging them to call their Congressional offices to protest the bill, leading to thousands of calls. Some users reported that they were unable to use the app before placing the call. An op-ed in The Economist cited concerns about propaganda to bolster its argument in support of the bill against TikTok:

It is therefore a real concern that it has links to China, whose government is in deep ideological conflict with the West and sees the media as a tool of propaganda.

[…] A newspaper’s editorial line can be seen in black and white; by contrast, every TikTok user gets a different feed, and the company does not provide adequate tools to examine its output in aggregate. Even if studies suggest bias—some allege a skew in TikTok’s Gaza coverage, for instance—it is impossible to know whether TikTok’s algorithm is responding to users’ preferences, or to manipulation from Beijing. [Source]

Data security is another notable risk, given TikTok’s widespread popularity. In December 2022, the company admitted that ByteDance employees accessed user data to track the physical movements of American journalists reporting critically on TikTok. A similar issue occurred with the popular gay dating app Grindr, which while under Chinese ownership allowed engineers in Beijing to access data from its 27 million users, prompting the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. to designate the app’s Chinese ownership a national security threat. To maintain operations in the U.S., the Beijing-based company sold 98 percent of its stake in Grindr to a U.S. company in 2020.

But the case of TikTok appears more complex. Many civil society groups argue that by singling out one Chinese tech company with the threat of a ban, lawmakers are not only stifling free speech on the social media app but also unfairly punishing one actor for harmful data practices perpetrated by many actors in the industry. “If House Republicans were really serious about taking on Big Tech or tech platforms for national security risks, they should be looking at Google, […] Meta, […] Apple, [and…] Amazon,” said Sacha Haworth, executive director of the Tech Oversight Project. Congress’ inability or lack of inclination to prioritize a more comprehensive approach to data regulation reinforces these critiques. In a ChinaFile conversation, Yaqiu Wang described the missed opportunity for the U.S. government to pursue comprehensive data regulation to deal with these threats from TikTok:

While the United States is a leader in tech innovation, we lag behind some of our democratic peers in rights-respecting regulation. Unfortunately, we still lack a comprehensive set of laws to address how tech companies process user data and moderate content. These laws could have helped us limit the kind of data TikTok could share with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including through third-party data brokers. Laws on platform transparency could have provided more insight about how large platforms like TikTok may have censored, suppressed, or promoted content at the request of the CCP, a subject that is increasingly on the minds of observers and elected officials.

These laws could have created opportunities for evidence-based policymaking and increased scrutiny from legislators and civil society. And if TikTok failed to fully comply, Washington could have fined the company millions or billions, which could then have been invested in safeguarding digital and national security.

Unfortunately, that’s not currently the case. [Source]

The Chinese government reacted negatively to the U.S. bill. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated, “If the pretext of national security can be used to suppress excellent companies from other countries arbitrarily, there is no fairness or justice to speak of.” Commerce Ministry spokesperson He Yadong said that the U.S. should “genuinely respect the principles of market economy and fair competition” and “cease unjust suppression of foreign enterprises.” Notably, there was no mention of China’s long-standing domestic ban on many foreign social media apps under the pretense of national security. Moreover, as Raffaele Huang reported for The Wall Street Journal, the Chinese government’s opposition to the sale of TikTok undermines the company’s claim of autonomy vis-a-vis Beijing:

The Chinese government is signaling that it won’t allow a forced sale of TikTok, limiting options for the app’s owners as buyers begin lining up to bid for its U.S. operations.

[…] During a routine news conference on Thursday, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Commerce said the U.S. should “stop unreasonably suppressing” TikTok, adding: “The relevant party should strictly abide by Chinese laws and regulations.”

The comment was seen by some ByteDance executives as reinforcing Beijing’s message to the company that it would face regulatory hurdles if it sought to divest TikTok, the people [familiar with the matter] said. Last year, China warned that a sale or divestiture of TikTok would involve exporting technology and would have to be approved by the government.

[…] “Policymakers in Beijing view the bill as an attempted robbery of this prized asset, and they won’t stand for it,” said Tom Nunlist, a Shanghai-based tech policy analyst at Trivium China, a consulting firm. [Source]

Noting this asymmetry in access to social media platforms, The Register amplified the rationale that “[b]anning TikTok in the US would therefore homogenize Sino-American online regulation.” But some experts view this as a negative race to the bottom. Tianyu Fang argued that the current bill “will seemingly legitimize the Chinese model of internet governance, which sees foreign platforms as inherent threats to political stability.” Analyzing the broader trends in a piece for New America last November, Tianyu Fang and Tim Hwang noted how the global rise of Chinese apps have led to techno-nationalist responses that reinforce Chinese models for the internet:  

The techno-nationalist response to TikTok’s alleged threats is predicated upon two wrong assumptions. First, it identifies the problems of TikTok with its Chinese ownership, instead of failures of social media regulations across the board. This is consistent with a view that TikTok represents a specifically Chinese vision of how social media platforms should be architected.

[…] Second, comprehensive bans on foreign apps implicitly reject the open vision of the internet that both the U.S. government and civil society have historically sought to defend. This is consistent with the idea that national security should outweigh traditional commitments to ensuring open competition and free expression online. Ironically, attempts to limit access to services on grounds of foreign ownership echo China’s claim to “cyber sovereignty,” which views participation on the global internet as a threat to national security. This signals a convergence, not divergence, between U.S. and Chinese policy. [Source]

Indeed, the U.S. is far from the first country to recoil from TikTok. Governments in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan, and Somalia have banned the app indefinitely or temporarily due to claims of indecent content. Senegal and Jordan also banned the app at certain points due to political reasons. India banned TikTok for reasons of national security and indecent content, along with over 50 other Chinese apps. TikTok has also been banned from federal government devices in Taiwan, Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Malta, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as on official devices belonging to employees of the European Commission and European Council and NATO. Authorities in the Netherlands, Ireland, and Norway have recommended similar bans.


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