Like a viral looping video, the TikTok saga seems to have come full circle — with a U.S. president reportedly pushing for the sale of the app, or else a total ban. Joe Biden’s campaign for the move is more coherent and convincing than his predecessor’s 2020 attempt, but the desired outcome is still unsettling.
Even the most credible arguments in favor of exiling TikTok because of parent company ByteDance’s Chinese ownership have been focused not on what has happened but on what could happen: President Xi Jinping’s regime could request specific data on sensitive individuals to blackmail them — or a trove of information on a vast array of users to glean some knowledge about the rising generation. The Chinese Communist Party could pressure the company to censor material that paints it in a poor light or promote posts that serve its interests — including, say, to manipulate a U.S. election in favor of a preferred candidate.
There are legal roadblocks to kicking out TikTok. But the administration’s ability to pursue a divestiture or put a ban in place even if the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) declines to do so would be enhanced by the proposed Restrict Act. The bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) would authorize the Commerce Department to mitigate the risks posed by certain foreign-owned products, or force divestiture or prohibit them if mitigation isn’t sufficient to address the threat. This repeatable, rules-based process for evaluating these services that the proposed bill would enable is welcome. So, too, are transparency provisions that would encourage the national security community to justify whatever steps the administration may take.
A congressional hearing with TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew on Thursday at times seemed more like performance art than serious legislative oversight, underscoring why the Senate bill’s more thoughtful approach is encouraging. Its changes would be a great improvement on the current game of whack-a-mole the country seems to be playing with the Huaweis, Kasperskys, TikToks and WeChats of the world — distinguishing between the type of risk they pose as well as the degree and tailoring responses based on those determinations. Whether a carefully designed process would or should result in the banning of TikTok, however, is dubious.
Concerns about the platform have always been worth the country’s attention — yet there’s also reason to dial down the alarmism. It is true, for instance, that China’s national security law would require the company to turn over information about its users to the government if ordered to do so, and that employees there have accessed U.S. user data. But it’s also true that the United States’ lack of a federal privacy law means most data with potential value to an adversary is already available for purchase on the internet from a broker. Reports on possible censorship of protests in Hong Kong or mentions of Tiananmen Square are also worrisome. But while election manipulation is a serious matter, research on Russia’s 2016 interference efforts suggests that orchestrating a TikTok conspiracy might not prove all that effective compared with, say, hacking and leaking legitimate documents.
- D.C. Council reverses itself on school resource officers. Good.
- Virginia makes a mistake by pulling out of an election fraud detection group.
- Vietnam sentences another democracy activist.
- Biden has a new border plan.
Both sets of worries ought to be addressed. Indeed, TikTok has tried to. Under the plan known as Project Texas, the firm would store U.S. data only on U.S.-owned servers, submit its recommendation algorithms to U.S. monitoring and place its operations under the control of a U.S.-approved board of security experts. No solution, especially applied to a platform of TikTok’s scale, can truly be watertight — but the conclusions the company came to during its negotiations with CFIUS are probably close to the best any platform can do. Which means that their rejection now raises the question: If TikTok can’t operate here, can any social media service originating in China?
The implications of a “no” here are vast. There are ways to distinguish between TikTok and other services, and ways to distinguish China from other countries. There may also be reasons the public is yet unaware of that the app is more of a menace than it seems. But the United States has rightly prided itself on its openness to free trade and free expression alike. Cutting off a service that 150 million people in this country use, whether to watch lip-syncing videos, hype their small businesses or share news, might look like a blow to China in the short run. Yet it would be a victory for that country’s philosophy of techno-nationalism and a defeat for an open world and open web. If the White House does try to ban TikTok, it will owe citizens — users of the platform and non-users alike — a good explanation.
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