The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion TikTok, time’s up. The app should be banned in America.

The TikTok app on a smartphone screen. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)

Marco Rubio, a Republican, is a U.S. senator from Florida. Mike Gallagher, a Republican, represents Wisconsin’s 8th Congressional District in the House.

The United States is locked in a new Cold War with the Chinese Communist Party, one that senior military advisers warn could turn hot over Taiwan at any time. Yet millions of Americans increasingly rely on TikTok, a Chinese social media app exposed to the influence of the CCP, to consume the news, share content and communicate with friends.

Already among the most popular media companies in the United States, TikTok offers the CCP a unique ability to monitor more than 1 billion users worldwide, including nearly two-thirds of American teenagers. We must ban this potential spyware before it is too late — not encourage its use in the United States, as President Biden is doing.

TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. This is not a state-owned enterprise, but in China, no company is truly private. Under the country’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, all citizens and businesses are required to assist in intelligence work, which includes sharing data.

That’s not all. According to Forbes, LinkedIn profiles reveal that 23 of ByteDance’s directors previously worked for CCP propaganda outlets, and at least 15 ByteDance employees work for them now. Moreover, the company’s editor in chief, who also happens to be the secretary of its internal CCP committee, stressed that the committee would “take the lead” in “all product lines and business lines” to ensure that ByteDance’s products have “correct political direction.”

The company’s ownership of TikTok is problematic for two reasons. First, the app can track cellphone users’ locations and collect internet-browsing data — even when users are visiting unrelated websites.

That TikTok, and by extension the CCP, has the ability to survey every keystroke teenagers enter on their phones is disturbing. With this app, Beijing could also collect sensitive national security information from U.S. government employees and develop profiles on millions of Americans to use for blackmail or espionage.

Of course, TikTok denies that it would ever do such a thing. That’s hard to believe, however, in light of recent reporting in Forbes that ByteDance planned to use the app to monitor the locations of American citizens for undisclosed purposes unrelated to advertising.

TikTok did not answer Forbes’s questions about whether it has targeted U.S. government officials, activists, public figures or journalists. The company’s refusal to be transparent invites suspicion that the CCP may already be gathering data from the app.

Even more alarming than that possibility, however, are the potential abuses of TikTok’s algorithm.

TikTok supplies open content from people across the globe. Its algorithm is a black box, in that its designers can alter its operation at any time without informing users. Presumably, it is designed to identify and promote content with a high chance of going viral — catchy music, dances, jokes and the like. But in the hands of ByteDance, it could also be used to subtly indoctrinate American citizens.

TikTok has already censored references to politically sensitive topics, including the treatment of workers in Xinjiang, China, and the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. It has temporarily blocked an American teenager who criticized the treatment of Uyghurs in China. In German videos about Chinese conduct toward Uyghurs, TikTok has modified subtitles for terms such as “reeducation camp” and “labor camp,” replacing words with asterisks.

The CCP could also use TikTok to propagate videos that support party-friendly politicians or exacerbate discord in American society. Such videos need not originate from CCP proxies — they could be created by anyone. With essentially unlimited data on user-made content at its disposal, Beijing can leverage it to fan the flames of domestic division.

And thanks to the rising number of adults who get their news from TikTok, the platform has the ability to influence which issues Americans learn about, what information they consider accurate, and what conclusions they draw from world events. This places extraordinary power in the hands of company employees who could any day be overruled by the CCP.

TikTok is a major threat to U.S. national security. Yet Biden is encouraging greater engagement with the platform by directly courting TikTok influencers. Furthermore, reports suggest that he is nearing a deal that would authorize TikTok’s continued operation in the United States without any change in ownership.

This would dangerously compromise national security and provide a template for other CCP-controlled companies to establish themselves in the United States with minimal scrutiny. Unless TikTok and its algorithm can be separated from Beijing, the app’s use in the United States will continue to jeopardize our country’s safety and pave the way for a Chinese-influenced tech landscape here.

These are unacceptable outcomes. This is why we’re introducing legislation which would ban TikTok and other social media companies that are effectively controlled by the CCP from operating in the United States. Congress needs to act against the TikTok threat before it’s too late.

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