Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
In July of 2020, TikTok—the Chinese-owned video-sharing service that has become popular with young internet users—was deep in talks to sell itself to Microsoft, or possibly Oracle, after the Trump administration suggested that TikTok’s Chinese ownership represented a national security threat. The president was said to be considering an executive order forcing ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to divest itself of the app, so a number of options were on the table, including selling a controlling stake in the $100-billion company to a consortium of US investment companies. Trump eventually issued an executive order banning US corporations from doing business with ByteDance, because of the alleged security risk posed by Chinese access to the app’s data, as well as allegations that the Chinese government forced TikTok to censor mentions of Tianenmen Square and similar protests. Despite all the furor, ByteDance was never forced to sell, and the issue seemed to fade from view after Joe Biden became president.
Over the next two years, however, TikTok’s command of the social-media marketplace has only increased, to the point where it now has more than one billion users worldwide. According to a recent report from David McCabe at the New York Times, the subject of TikTok’s ties to China and the potential security risk never went away, and in fact has grown more urgent in recent months—at least for some in Congress, and in the Biden administration. The Times reported that last year, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, met with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, and discussed China’s impact on US industrial policy. During that discussion, the Times wrote, Rubio raised concerns about Beijing’s influence over TikTok, and Sullivan said he shared those concerns. Mark Warner, the Democratic senator from Virginia, told the Times he had also been in “active conversations” with the administration about the app.
Such concerns were undoubtedly fueled in part by a report from Emily Baker-White at BuzzFeed that said staffers at ByteDance routinely accessed data on US TikTok users. “For years, TikTok has responded to data privacy concerns by promising that information gathered about users in the US is stored in the US, rather than China,” Baker-White wrote. “But according to leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users.” BuzzFeed reported that this happened despite sworn testimony from a TikTok executive in a 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decided who could access such data. “Nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing,” Baker-White wrote.
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