The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t ban TikTok. Make it safer for the country.

A visitor passes the TikTok exhibition stands at the Gamescom fair in Cologne, Germany, on Aug. 25, 2022. (Martin Meissner/AP)
correction

An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that TikTok had denied U.S. data was being accessed in China. TikTok has acknowledged U.S. data is being accessed in China. This version has been corrected.

To teenagers, TikTok is mostly about makeup tutorials and music-inflected memes. But to many policymakers, the video-sharing site is about totalitarianism and illegal surveillance. National security concerns over parent company ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government have put Gen Z’s favorite social media service in peril — and what happens next will have even broader implications.

The TikTok debate is forcing President Biden’s White House to weigh how to protect the nation against the real threats that some foreign-based companies pose — without indulging in national security creep that unnecessarily cuts off foreign investment in the United States.

One of the biggest problems with TikTok is knowing what the biggest problem with TikTok is. Most TikTok hawks have focused on the surveillance of user activity that the app could conduct and the user data the company can access, or what could be called information collection. Concerns that TikTok might collect U.S. citizens’ information have some justification. Forbes recently reported on a plan for targeted surveillance of journalists who had reported critically on the company’s links to the Chinese regime. TikTok says it terminated all involved after corroborating the allegations in an internal investigation. The possibility that TikTok staff might target users working in roles that grant them special power, special knowledge or both is worrisome, which is why Congress was right to ban installation of the app on federally issued devices.

But the data TikTok collects on the average user (likes and dislikes, political preferences, location and demographics) is hardly secret; anyone can buy such data on the open market for user information, or get it through other means. Until Congress cleans up the United States’ privacy act, TikTok is hardly the only or the most extreme online privacy risk Americans face — and banning or forcing ByteDance’s sale of TikTok is unlikely to be a solution.

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Many experts believe that information manipulation, including censorship of user posts as well as the dissemination of propaganda and disinformation, is actually the greater threat TikTok poses. The algorithm the company uses to recommend posts to users is ostensibly content-neutral, pushing people who like a given video toward material with which others who like that video have also engaged. But the service promotes or filters out categories of content, too — sometimes privileging, say, the World Cup, sometimes disfavoring posts that could be harmful for mental health. The code that achieves these aims can be opaque, and because every user sees a different feed, measuring outcomes can prove tricky.

So if Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime wanted, for example, to give a gentle nudge to videos favoring a certain presidential candidate or stamp out videos referencing the Tiananmen Square massacre, he could theoretically pass the dictate to ByteDance, which could pass it to TikTok, which could carry it out under threat — and no one would be any the wiser.

TikTok is attempting to address both areas of alarm in its negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. The company is prepared to store its data only on Oracle servers located in the United States, to submit its recommendation algorithms to monitoring and to place its operations under the control of a board of security experts reporting to the U.S. government. The idea is that an entity separate from TikTok would be responsible for actually running it here, so that if Mr. Xi did tell ByteDance to tell TikTok to censor or propagandize, TikTok would have to tell its U.S.-controlled partner — and that partner would have full authority to refuse.

This could work, with some fine-tuning. Today, Chinese employees have too-easy access to U.S. data. Whatever controls are supposed to ensure that the data stored in the United States doesn’t leave the country will have to be watertight, and any “monitoring” of the algorithm will have to be sufficient to detect meddling. Yet if these details can be hammered out, striking such a deal would be far better than banning an app that has proved extremely popular.

A country that cherishes free speech shouldn’t be eager to stamp out the ability of millions to express themselves on their site of choice. The United States should also be wary of setting a worldwide precedent wherein a democracy blacklists firms based primarily on where they come from.

The right way to approach TikTok is the right way to approach all foreign investment: assess a company’s susceptibility to undue influence from an adversary; gauge the likelihood that susceptibility will lead to a specific harm; and determine whether the government can reduce that likelihood through measures short of an all-out ban. The same goes for global trade generally. The United States should promote the dynamism and prosperity that result from international exchange, curtailing it only in cases of glaring need.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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