Opinion and Editorial

China's growing tech influence worries US

Jennifer Daskal & Samm Sacks
Filed on November 19, 2019 | Last updated on November 19, 2019 at 07.24 pm

The fear is that TikTok serves as a vessel that extends Beijing's influence and control outside of China. And it's a legitimate concern.

As TikTok, the social media platform that has perfected the art of short-form communication by video, has risen to market dominance, so has awareness of its potential geopolitical threat. Launched just three years ago, it now has more than 500 million active users and was the most downloaded app on the app store in the first quarter of 2019. And its owner is ByteDance, a leading Chinese technology company.

In a letter to Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton warned: "With over 110 million downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore." On Tuesday, Senator Josh Hawley joined the bandwagon, so apoplectic about the security threat that he derailed his own committee hearing. Meanwhile, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has reportedly started a probe into the national security risks of ByteDance's 2017 acquisition of the app Musical.ly, the precursor of TikTok.

The fear is that TikTok serves as a vessel that extends Beijing's influence and control outside of China. And it's a legitimate concern. TikTok is perhaps the first Chinese tech export with the potential to reshape the global internet. Unlike Alibaba and Tencent, TikTok does not just cater to overseas Chinese users or focus on expanding in emerging economies. Teenagers in democracies across Europe as well as India, South Korea, and Australia are flocking to the app to record 15-second video clips of themselves singing and dancing. Most probably don't realise that, because TikTok is a Chinese company, their communications might be restricted and monitored by Beijing.

TikTok has pushed back on the specific censorship and surveillance concerns. In response to Washington critics, it has insisted that its US operation is independent from its Chinese parent, including with respect to what content is permitted on its site and what personal data gets shared with its Chinese handlers. Whether and to what extent that is true is a matter of significant dispute. BuzzFeed recently found evidence that TikTok may not have been removing posts about the protests in Hong Kong despite suggestions to the contrary. But Washington Post interviews with former workers in the United States suggest that prior content-based decisions-including demands that videos depicting heavy kissing and certain political messages be kept off the app-were dictated at least in part by Beijing.

In 2018, ByteDance increased its content censor team to 10,000 people after authorities took issue with vulgar jokes on a different app under its umbrella. And while it is a myth that the Chinese government has an open pipeline to all data accessible to Chinese-owned companies, the reality is that if and when Beijing makes a demand, it is hard for Chinese-based firms to say no.

So what can we do? To start, the United States should demand privacy protections for data that it (and all US-based companies) collects, including limits on retention and sharing. The fact that TikTok is now committing to make content decisions independently, without being swayed by Beijing, is a good thing-something that can and should be encouraged.

But the furore over TikTok is about something much bigger. Case-by-case attacks on particularly powerful Chinese-controlled companies can't adequately address the underlying trends and concerns. And the United States can't go at this alone. Even if the US took the drastic step of banning TikTok, the company will continue to thrive elsewhere.

Just look at what happened when the US banned Huawei from 5G next-generation networks and tried to convince allies and partners in Europe to do the same. In October, Germany delivered a slap in the face to the Trump administration by announcing it would not ban Huawei from 5G. Even at home, US chipmakers flouted the US ban by shipping products to Huawei using loopholes in export control law. Chinese drone-manufacturing companies are the latest addition to the blacklist, although here, too, there is nothing the US can do to protect against the sales elsewhere.

We need a more effective strategy for dealing with Beijing's growing influence over global technologies. This is a much harder task than company-whack-a-mole, but the US is already losing that game anyway.

China-based tech companies are increasingly dominant global players. This success provides an avenue for China to export norms, power, and practices globally. This is hardly a new phenomenon. US tech dominance has long given a massive competitive advantage to domestic law enforcement and intelligence services. Perhaps not surprisingly, the terms of service of companies like Facebook and Twitter and Google have, at least until recently, heavily reflected the particularities of First Amendment-influenced norms. Now China is exercising an all-too-familiar kind of global power.

Whether we allow China-owned companies to operate in the United States or not, they will spread-and are highly attractive-elsewhere. If the US simply withdraws its market and its potential influence, it will cede power and control, including the ability to shape global norms, policies, and practices, to Beijing. Perhaps we need an alternative, affirmative internet that is powerful and attractive to users around the world in its own right. Right now, the choice is between the US internet-dominated by Silicon Valley companies who proclaim the need for "internet freedom" to justify their hands-off approach to hate, terrorism, bullying, and election manipulation-and China's.

Jennifer Daskal is a professor of law at American University. Samm Sacks is a cybersecurity policy and China digital economy fellow at New America


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