The Threat of TikTok – The New York Times

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The platforms are so powerful, their names are verbs: Google, Uber, Instagram, Netflix.

For years, the dominance of American tech companies has brought economic benefits to the United States. It has also offered an advantage in a less obvious area — national security.

Tech companies gather incredible amounts of data about their users. They know where we travel, who our friends are and what we watch. Governments want to use this data for surveillance, law enforcement and espionage. So they hack, hoard, steal and buy it. For years, the U.S. has had an edge over other countries. With court approval, the government can demand that social media giants, based in the U.S. and subject to U.S. law, hand over data about users.

“We had this advantage that we thought would just go on forever,” Bruce Schneier, a security expert and Harvard fellow, said.

Then TikTok came along. The social media app, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has more than a billion users. TikTok says that includes about 150 million Americans. Under China’s authoritarian state, the government has sweeping control over tech companies and their data. U.S. officials are worried that China will use TikTok to promote its interests and gather Americans’ personal information. One Republican called it a “spy balloon in your phone.”

TikTok is the latest flashpoint in the two countries’ struggle for supremacy. Last week, TikTok said U.S. officials had given its Chinese ownership two options: Sell the app or risk a nationwide ban. This morning, lawmakers will question TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Chew, about the app’s ties to China.

Today, I will explain the fight over TikTok and how the U.S. is trying to use the app to its advantage.

This fight is ostensibly about data: who controls it and determines how it appears on TikTok. The U.S. has two main reasons for concern.

First is the threat of Chinese espionage. BuzzFeed found that ByteDance engineers in China had accessed American users’ private data. ByteDance also admitted that employees, including two based in China, spied on journalists and obtained their IP addresses, but said that company leaders had not signed off and that the employees were fired. Despite ByteDance’s close ties to China, TikTok has denied that it has given data to the government.

Second, ByteDance could use TikTok’s algorithms to influence Americans. TikTok has been accused of censoring videos about politically sensitive subjects for China, like Tibetan independence and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

A Chinese company owns what has become America’s number one culture maker right now,” Sapna Maheshwari, a Times reporter who covers TikTok, said. In the future, lawmakers say, it’s easy to imagine how China could use TikTok to shape American attitudes about Taiwan — or an American presidential campaign.

The U.S. is escalating efforts to limit TikTok’s power. The federal government and more than half of the states have banned TikTok from government devices and networks. Britain, Canada and Belgium have done the same. India banned the app entirely. Now the U.S. is threatening a nationwide ban, too.

Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok in 2020, but judges rejected his attempt. The government is trying again, though it’s unclear exactly how a ban would be implemented. There is no precedent for U.S. restrictions on an app this big.

One approach that some lawmakers prefer would remove TikTok from Apple’s and Google’s app stores and make the app nonfunctional on U.S. cellphone networks. But the government couldn’t reach into users’ phones to delete the app. TikTok would still be accessible to those who already have it, though users couldn’t download updates to the app, which would probably render it unusable eventually.

Any ban faces legal and political hurdles, including questions about First Amendment protections and the possibility of angering millions of TikTok users heading into a presidential election year.

The U.S. may be threatening a ban to force another outcome in its favor — the sale of TikTok to an American company. TikTok and the U.S. have previously negotiated about one. Still, the path is murky. China is unlikely to approve a sale. And if it did, it’s unclear who would buy the app, which could cost $50 billion, according to some analysts. A sale could also trigger antitrust concerns for probable suitors like Microsoft.

Even if a ban never happens, the threat of one still matters. The Biden administration is using the specter of further restrictions to communicate a hard line on China. Lawmakers in both parties will likely make that point clear in the hearing today.

The episode is the latest in the larger fight between two world powers competing for dominance. In this contest, data is a valuable source of economic and political clout.

“If you can control data, you can have influence,” Joseph Nye, a political scientist, said.

China has known this for years. The country has banned apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and operated a tightly controlled internet, isolating its citizens from the rest of the world. The U.S. is now threatening to use China’s playbook against it, effectively using private companies as a national asset and limiting information access as a form of sanctioning.

Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, is expected to tell Congress today that the app is a vehicle for promoting soft power — a “lens through which the rest of the world can experience American culture.” But the U.S. has made clear it cares more about the hard power of data.

“TikTok is the first platform to truly compete with these huge American tech companies,” Sapna said. “The signal the government is sending is: Don’t bother.”

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