“It is a tool that, in the end, is under the control of the Chinese government. And that raises national security concerns for me,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. TikTok is increasingly at the center of the US government’s target, which suspects that the popular short-video social network created in China could be used for ideological manipulation or espionage at the behest of Beijing.
A law is already in force that prohibits that platform in the terminals and computer systems of federal property. Now, the Department of Justice is investigating the company that owns it, the Chinese ByteDance, for a possible crime of espionage against US citizens, including journalists, according to what media outlets in this country have published this Friday. And the Biden Administration, according to the company, is demanding that it become independent from its parent company and that its Chinese shareholders sell their stake. Otherwise, that app will be banned in the United States.
The sales instruction – which US government spokesmen have refused to confirm – comes from a government body known as the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which regulates investments coming from abroad. The CFIUS has been negotiating for more than a year with the technology company to try to resolve Washington’s concerns about a social network used by one hundred million Americans, the vast majority of them under 35 years of age. The average time that each of them spends in front of the short videos on the platform, for entertainment or information, is 90 minutes a day.
“If protecting national security is the goal, divestment will not solve the problem,” TikTok spokeswoman Maureen Shanahan said in a statement. “A change in ownership will not impose new restrictions on data flows or access. National security concerns are best addressed with transparent, US-based protection of US user systems and data, with strict monitoring and verification by an independent party, something we’re already doing. getting going,” added Shanahan. The platform’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, will appear next Thursday at a hearing in the House of Representatives.
The US government underlines its concern about the impact that TikTok may have on its national security. On the one hand, he fears that the platform could manipulate what those hundred million Americans hooked on his videos see on their terminals. For example, showing videos favorable to Chinese positions around Taiwan. Douyin, the version of the platform for Chinese consumption, is regularly subjected to censorship that limits its content, as is usual in the cultural field, also in communication, in the People’s Republic.
The Biden Administration and various legislators in Congress also fear that TikTok could use its technology to spy on the terminals of its American users, or make their data available to the Chinese government. The cybersecurity law approved by Beijing in 2017 obliges all companies in sectors considered “key” to national security to undergo periodic reviews by the authorities.
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Asked at a Senate hearing last week about the possibility of China using the software of the company to spy or promote propaganda, the FBI director would reply: “Yes, and I would like to stress on this last point, in particular, that we are not sure that we would see external signs of it happening, if it did happen.”
This is precisely what the Department of Justice has been investigating for months. The apparent trigger was an admission by ByteDance in December: he acknowledged that his employees on Chinese soil had accessed the data of American users, including two journalists and people related to both. Those workers, who have since been laid off, were trying to find the source of alleged leaks from the company to the media.
TikTok denies that the Chinese government has ever required it to transfer the data of its users abroad. He also maintains that, if he got to that extreme, he would refuse. He does acknowledge that his employees in Chinese territory had access to foreign data, but he assures that it was limited access and that it did not extend to the Chinese authorities. And he points out that, to address the concerns of Washington and other governments, it undertakes projects to host the data of its users in the United States – under the custody of the Oracle technology company – and in Europe.
But the position of the White House and the US Congress seems increasingly hard against the platform founded by the entrepreneur Zhang Yiming. “A forced sale is the right step,” says Lindsay Gorman, of the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance to Ensure Democracy and a former Biden Administration official. “This apps it gives name and face to the export of the Chinese model of state control to the world. But now there is a cross-partisan consensus that TitkTok poses a threat to the national security of American democracy.”
The dispute is similar to the one that Washington has with the Chinese technology giant Huawei, which is preventing access to US technology for its products, considering that it can use them to spy on US users. Both struggles, which began during the term of President Donald Trump, are part of a whole fight between the two great global colossi for economic, technological and geopolitical dominance in the world. Thus, both governments have taken steps to promote their respective national industry. And they have imposed barriers on rival products, with increased tariffs, but also vetoes, as in the case of the US, on the export of semiconductor technology to China.
In the case of TikTok, the problems began in 2020, when Trump considered forcing the platform to be acquired by an American company in order to continue operating in this country. That claim was quietly dropped amid recommendations from advisers and legal warnings that the claim had little legal basis. The announcement that an agreement had been reached to sell part of the business to the Walmart supermarket group and the Oracle technology company never came into effect, but it allowed both parties to save face and buy time.
Since then, CFIUS has continued negotiations with the company to try to reach an agreement. A possibility that is perceived more and more distant.
Last month, several Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives introduced a bill, with little prospect of success in the Senate, that would authorize Biden to ban the platform in the United States. This March, another bill appeared in the Senate.
This proposal, known by the acronym RESTRICT, has been presented by Senators Mark Warner, a Democrat, and John Thune, a Republican, and has the explicit support of the White House. Its purpose is to respond to the “threat from the technology of foreign adversaries”, especially China. The measure, if signed into law, would allow Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to ban TikTok in the United States.
“Beijing is now a competitor almost on the same level as the United States in its economic, military and technological capacity,” Warner declared when presenting the draft of the measure. And last week, at the hearing where the FBI director was speaking, Republican Senator Marco Rubio described TikTok as a platform that “can collect data, manipulate information, poison minds and feed the ideas of millions of people with garbage.”
Not everyone agrees, however. US courts have already ruled against attempts to block access to the social network on social media platforms. apps from Apple and Google. And the main organization defending civil rights, ACLU, has warned that banning TikTok would violate the sacrosanct first amendment of the US Constitution, which protects the right to freedom of expression.
For the US government itself, proceeding with the sale would not be easy. Beijing could block that initiative. Also, finding a buyer with deep enough pockets who wouldn’t trigger accusations of monopoly could prove challenging. On the other hand, TikTok has established itself as a key tool to reach younger voters -generally, more inclined to vote Democratic- in electoral times, such as the one that opens before the 2024 presidential elections.
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