TikTok and Congress try to cut a deal

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In June, BuzzFeed News published an investigative report based on leaked audio from more than 80 internal meetings at TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app. Emily Baker-White of BuzzFeed wrote that the recordings—along with fourteen statements from nine TikTok employees—showed that China-based employees of the company “repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US users of the video-sharing app between September 2021 and January 2022.” As Baker-White pointed out, this directly contradicted a senior TikTok executive’s sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing, in which the executive said that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decided who would have access to US customer data. The reality illustrated by BuzzFeed’s recordings, Baker-White wrote, was “exactly the type of behavior that inspired former president Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app in the United States.”

That proposed ban never materialized, although Trump did issue an executive order banning US corporations from doing business with ByteDance. Joe Biden struck down the order, but concerns about TikTok’s Chinese ownership remained. Biden asked the Commerce Department to launch national security reviews of apps with links to foreign adversaries, including China, and BuzzFeed’s reporting about TikTok’s access to US data fueled those concerns. According to the Times, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, met with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, last year, and expressed concern about China’s impact on US industrial policy, including Beijing’s influence over TikTok. Sullivan reportedly said he shared those concerns.

On Monday, the Times reported that the Biden administration and TikTok had drafted a preliminary agreement to resolve national security concerns posed by the app. The two sides have “more or less hammered out the foundations of a deal in which TikTok would make changes to its data security and governance without requiring its owner, ByteDance, to sell it,” the Times wrote, while adding that the Biden government and TikTok’s owners were “still wrangling over the potential agreement.” According to the Times, US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has concerns that the terms of the deal are not tough enough on China, and the Treasury Department is skeptical that the proposed agreement can sufficiently resolve national security issues. The Biden administration’s policy towards Beijing, the Times wrote, “is not substantially different from the posture of the Trump White House, reflecting a suspicion of China.”

Aspects of the proposed agreement have been reported before: one is that TikTok would agree to store the data it holds about American users on servers located in the US, and probably run by Oracle, instead of on servers in Singapore. (In the wake of the BuzzFeed article in June, TikTok said this had already been put in place.) The second requirement is that an external US entity like Oracle would monitor and vet TikTok’s recommendation algorithms , to ensure that they aren’t suggesting or censoring content in an attempt to influence the American public. (There have been reports in the past that TikTok removed specific kinds of content at the request of the Chinese government, including content related to pro-democracy protests in China.) The third requirement is that TikTok appoint a board of US security experts to oversee its operations.

Some critics of TikTok and its influence are unlikely to be satisfied with the proposed agreement, the Times notes. “Anything short of a complete separation” from China-based ByteDance “will likely leave significant national security issues regarding operations, data and algorithms unresolved,” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. In August, a number of members of Congress sent a letter requesting an intelligence briefing about TikTok’s new “Elections Center,” which the company announced as part of its preparations for the midterm elections. The group said they were concerned that the initiative “could allow the Chinese Communist Party to interfere in US elections and collect sensitive data on U.S. political activity, including voter-registration information,” The National Review reported.

While TikTok has attempted to downplay its ties to the Chinese Communist Party, the Review wrote, “ByteDance has collaborated with security bureaus in Xinjiang to cover up Beijing’s mass atrocities targeting minorities, including the Uyghurs.” The members of Congress who wrote requesting an intelligence briefing about the company said that according to an Intelligence Community Assessment released by the Director of National Intelligence, “China probably continued longstanding efforts to gather information on American voters and public opinion, political parties, candidates and their staffs and senior government officials’ during the last election.”

Not everyone is convinced that TikTok’s Chinese masters are trying to influence American attitudes and social mores, or that the app’s data-handling practices are any more of a threat than social platforms like Facebook or Twitter. “The right is basically convinced China is using TikTok to make kids trans, feminize men, and hook the US on medications, and they use any queer or mental health content on the app as evidence of it,” Gillian Branstetter of the ACLU said on Twitter recently. Tayor Lorenz, a technology columnist for the Washington Post, said that criticism about Chinese propaganda from commentators such as Scott Galloway is a red herring. “Instead of focusing on broader privacy and consumer protection laws, which would affect US platforms like FB, people like Scott scapegoat and fear monger over TikTok,” Lorenz wrote. “It’s an intentional distraction from real, comprehensive data/privacy reform and ppl should see it for what it is.”

Here’s more on TikTok:

Hyperventilating: Karl Bode, writing at Techdirt, said that there isn’t much substance to criticisms from people like Galloway who “hyperventilate about TikTok.” The claim that China is directly controlling TikTok, and that it will use the app to spy on or influence Americans in nefarious ways, is mostly fear-mongering, Bode writes. “Actual evidence of TikTok being uniquely dangerous… has been sorely lacking, but that doesn’t stop folks from heading to the fainting couches.” Even if TikTok were to be banned completely, Bode argues, “China could hoover up location, browsing, and behavior data from an ocean of completely unaccountable and hugely shady data brokers and middlemen.”

The Wild West: Jem Bartholomew of Columbia’s Tow Center spoke recently with Becca Ricks, a senior researcher at the Mozilla Foundation, whose investigative work highlighted how partisan influencers are evading TikTok’s weak political-ad policies. “What we found doing our investigation is it prompted more questions than answers,” she said. “Sometimes we ourselves were asking the question: Would this violate TikTok’s policies? It raised questions of how do you define violations, how you define political advertising?” Most ad policies at social platforms are equipped to deal with traditional ads, Ricks said, “but a lot of that doesn’t exist for influencer advertising. It’s the Wild West.”

Feeling fine: TikTok is facing a fine of almost thirty million dollars for failing to protect the privacy of children, according to a report from The Guardian. “An investigation conducted by the Information Commissioner’s Office found the video-sharing app may have breached data protection law between May 2018 and July 2020,” the paper wrote. The ICO issued a “notice of intent,” which is a precursor to handing down a fine. If the fine is twenty-nine million dollars, it would be the largest in the history of the Information Commissioner’s Office, exceeding a record fine of twenty two million dollars handed to British Airways two years ago after a data-hacking incident in 2018.

Other notable stories:

  • The Vietnamese government is tightening its control over who is allowed to disseminate news on social media, Reuters reports. The rules, expected to be announced by the year-end and with details yet to be hammered out, “would establish a legal basis for controlling news dissemination on platforms like Facebook and YouTube,” the news service said. A source told Reuters the government “wants to fix what it sees as the ‘news-lisation’ of social media,” a term used by the authorities to describe the misleading of users into thinking that social media accounts are authorised news outlets.
  • Philippe Vasset, a French journalist, has launched a new weekly publication called Glitz Paris, which calls itself “the first investigative publication dedicated to the global luxury sector.” Vasset told the New York Times that the newsletter will report on stories that “cut through various universes,” such as the connection between luxury watches and arms dealers. Glitz has 15 reporters and will be funded by subscriptions. 
  • Fast Company shut down its website on Tuesday after the publication said it was hacked. The hackers sent offensive notifications including racist language to Apple News subscribers. Fast Company said on Twitter that they are investigating what happened, and that their website will be suspended until the issue is resolved. The Verge reported that a message on Fast Company’s site claimed the hackers got access to the site via a password that was shared across many accounts.
  • The proposed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act could benefit far-right publications, The Hill reports. The legislation was intended to help small newspapers, by allowing them to negotiate with the social platforms to get payment for their news. The Hill says a clause in the bill would prohibit the platforms from discriminating against outlets due to “views expressed by the eligible digital journalism provider’s content,” and publications like Breitbart, NewsMax, and InfoWars could all use this clause to demand their links get featured. CJR wrote about the JCPA here.
  • Some major advertisers including Dyson, Mazda, Forbes, and PBS Kids have suspended their marketing campaigns or removed their ads from parts of Twitter because their promotions appeared alongside tweets soliciting child pornography, the companies told Reuters. “Brands ranging from Walt Disney, NBCUniversal, and Coca-Cola to a children’s hospital were among more than 30 advertisers that appeared on the profile pages of Twitter accounts peddling links to the exploitative material,” according to a Reuters review of research from Ghost Data, a cybersecurity group.
  • SumOfUs, a nonprofit public advocacy group, says Youtube and Facebook are promoting a disinformation campaign that favors Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro ahead of Brazilian elections on October 2nd, The Independent reports. “YouTube and Meta have added rocket fuel to Brazil’s ‘stop the steal’ movement, helping Bolsonaro copy Trump’s playbook to the letter, and causing incalculable damage to Brazilian democracy,” Vicky Wyatt, SumOfUs campaign director, said in a statement.
  • The Robert R. McCormick Foundation announced that it is providing funding to Block Club Chicago, Capitol News Illinois, Injustice Watch, and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications. The foundation said the investments complement its investment in the Illinois Solutions Partnership, formed with the Better Government Association and announced in 2021. It said the commitments were to “strengthening and scaling impactful reporting in Chicago and Illinois.”

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