TikTok, a Chinese-owned social media platform, has been under increasing scrutiny by US lawmakers since its introduction in the country in 2018. The app’s owner, ByteDance, has been accused of having ties to the Chinese government, leading to concerns over national security and the privacy of the app’s millions of US users.
As of March 2023, the future of TikTok in the US remains uncertain, with the Biden administration demanding that ByteDance divest its stake in the app or face a possible ban in the country. This move follows previous efforts by the Trump administration to ban the app, which were met with legal challenges.
The issue has gained traction, as US government devices were recently banned from having the app installed, and there have been calls to pass bipartisan legislation that would give the Biden administration the legal authority to seek a ban on the app.
The debate around TikTok highlights the growing importance of data privacy in our digital age, particularly in regards to apps and companies with foreign ownership. It also raises important questions about the role of algorithms in shaping public opinion and the potential for governments to manipulate these algorithms.
On March 23, 2023, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee regarding the calls from members of Congress to ban the app. Many state and foreign governments and some companies have already banned the app on work-provided phones, but a full ban raises concerns over data privacy risks, the potential for the Chinese government to access the data of the app’s 150 million US users, and the dangers of the app’s content recommendation algorithm.
The US government is concerned about the Chinese government accessing data from TikTok’s 150 million US users and its long-term implications. The Chinese government has a history of hacking US government agencies and corporations through social engineering, potentially using data to spy on people or influence public opinion.
The algorithm used by TikTok is another concern, as the app has not shared it with the public. There are fears that the algorithm may be biased or even unintentionally manipulative, potentially influencing public opinion. TikTok’s CEO, however, has defended the company’s practices and claimed that divesting from Chinese ownership won’t offer more protection than its current multibillion-dollar plan to safeguard American users’ data.
If the federal government decides to ban TikTok, it may be difficult to enforce for its existing 150 million users. While the ban would likely start by blocking the distribution of the app through Apple’s and Google’s app stores, determined users may still find ways to download and install it. A more drastic measure would be to force Apple and Google to change their phones to prevent TikTok from running, which would likely face legal challenges.
While TikTok’s Chinese ownership has raised concerns among American politicians, the platform has not been involved in any documented instances of misused data or algorithmic exploitation, unlike Facebook. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which impacted millions of Facebook users, and the Rohingya persecution in 2017 are examples of exploitative practices by Facebook’s algorithm. As major tech companies’ data usage remains opaque, users should remain cautious regardless of the platform.
In conclusion, the debate surrounding TikTok has highlighted the need for increased transparency and oversight when it comes to data privacy and algorithmic governance. While concerns over foreign ownership and potential government interference are valid, it is important to remember that these issues are not unique to TikTok, and U.S.-based companies have also faced scrutiny over their handling of user data and algorithms.