TikTok Faces Renewed Threats of U.S. Ban Over Surveillance and Disinformation Concerns

By Shiara Naveen and Savitha Srinivasan — Correspondents

During his presidential campaign in 2020, Donald Trump threatened to cut off TikTok for millions unless the parent company agreed to sell all U.S. operations. Now, the Biden Administration is trying a similar move, claiming that China is employing the app as a tool for surveillance and to spread disinformation.

TikTok, an extremely popular app for all ages, was launched in 2016 by a Chinese technology company, ByteDance which is a Beijing-based company. They reached 1 billion global use daily by September 2021. The name TikTok is meant to represent the short format of the videos, which are typically 15 to 60 seconds.

TikTok has been banned in other countries such as India and Bangladesh. It was also temporarily banned in Indonesia for claims of “pornography, inappropriate content, and blasphemy”— however, after the company promised to take all questionable content off the platform, the ban was overturned. In February 2019, the company had to pay $5.7 million to the U.S. to settle allegations that it was illegally collecting children’s personal information.

The CEO of Tiktok, Shou Zi Chew is getting hate from lawmakers over the app’s ties to China. At his hearing, lawmakers were bombarding Chew with questions about China’s influence over the app. He was accused of using the platform to spy on Americans as a way to help the Chinese government. 

Chew responded to lawmakers accusing TikTok of being influenced by the Chinese government. “ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government,” he said.

“It is a private company,” Chew added.

The decision to remove the app would be dangerous for Biden politically. Gina Raimondo, the commerce secretary summarized the political effects on Biden. “The politician in me thinks you’re going to literally lose every voter under 35, forever,” she told Bloomberg News.

Some of the world’s largest news organizations have TikTok accounts, meaning these news accounts would be shut down with the app; limiting the spread of facts to counter disinformation.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers claimed, in her opening statement, that Americans need to know about the threat of TikTok. “The American people need the truth about the threat TikTok poses to our national and personal security,” she said. 

“TikTok is a weapon,” she added.

TikToks impact on mental health is being questioned, specifically focusing on younger users. At the hearing, Gus Bilirakis, a Republican congressman, spoke about the story of Chase Nasca, a 16-year-old boy who committed suicide a year ago by stepping in front of a train. His parents sued ByteDance because Chase was directed towards adult accounts with dangerous and harmful content. 

Bilirakis directly accuses Chew and his company of ruining the Nasca family’s lives. “I want to thank his parents for being here today, and allowing us to show this. Mr. Chew, your company destroyed their lives,” said Bilirakis.

A bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill called the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act (The RESTRICT Act). This act would give the secretary of commerce the power to regulate technology produced by six countries that have a tense relationship with the U.S.

Representative Mike Gallagher, the chair of the House Select Committee on China, talks about his belief that this is a national security threat and how they must take action even with the potential consequences. “Republicans [and] Democrats agreed this is a threat,” he said.

“So we can’t ignore it just because of concerns about alienating some teenagers on this app,” Gallagher added.

Some legislators have expressed their concern over Project Texas, and how it wouldn’t be able to solve concerns about U.S. data privacy. Project Texas is a $1.5 billion plan that is aimed to help keep users’ data safe and protect the US’s national security interests. Chew firmly believes that this project will help build trust between users and key stakeholders and improve the app’s systems and controls. 

Chew tells legislators at the hearing that the goal of this project is to build trust with the American government and users. “Our approach has never been to dismiss or trivialize any of [you’re] concerns,” Chew told lawmakers at the hearing.

 “We have addressed them with real action now. That’s what we’ve been doing for the last two years, building what amounts to a firewall. The seals protected US user data from unauthorized foreign access. The bottom line is this American data is stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel. We call this initiative Project Texas,” said Chew.

Shu Jueting, a ministry spokesperson, says that if the US does force the sale China’s Commerce Ministry would “firmly oppose it.” She says the sale of TikTok would need to be done in accordance with Chinese regulations since it involves “technology export issues and administrative licensing procedures.” 

“Ignoring the products and services themselves, and only proceeding from the identity of foreign investors, forcing the sale of TikTok will seriously damage the confidence of investors from all over the world, including China, to invest in the United States,” said Shu.

Sarah Sharma, a freshman at Sharon High School, voiced her opinion on how the ban could impact others. “TikTok is a very powerful resource for small business owners and I think it’s a great resource for people to use but kids also need to learn how to manage their time on it and use it well,” Sharma says.

TikTok has a big audience. More than ⅔ of teens in the U.S. use the app and a generous number of young adults under 30 also. Many videos on TikTok have been made discussing the concern over foreign governments tracking their information. Many older Americans are in favor of the ban as they believe teenagers are being flooded with explicit content.

Ella Rene, a TikTok influencer speaks on her opinions of the app ban and how she will be personally affected. “Tiktok has created a career for me. I know it’s given a career to thousands of other creators and small businesses, and it’s really a shame that there’s a potential for it to be shut down,” she said.

Elaine Yu, a student at the high school and another influencer, says there are two sides of TikTok. “I think TikTok can be useful for many things but it depends on how you use it. I know there are people who have profited off of TikTok and have now made it their career as an influencer but there are also people who use TikTok to spread hate on others,” she said,

“I don’t think that getting rid of TikTok is getting rid of the root of the problem. You don’t have to use TikTok, you choose to use it,” she added.

Cameron Kelly, a past general counsel at the U.S. Department of Commerce from 2009 to 2013, does not think a total Tik Tok ban is needed. “I don’t think a shutdown, a ban, or a complete divestiture [of TikTok] is needed. But I do think you have to separate that legal control,” he said. 

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