Why Ban TikTok?
Lizzie O’Leary: About ten days ago, Ticktock invited a group of reporters to visit the company’s office in L.A.. It was part of a corporate charm offensive, an attempt to push back the various tik-tok bands that have popped up all over the country from state universities to Congress. The implicit message was, Hey, come see what we’re up to. We are totally not a national security threat.
Louise Matsakis: So I went there, you know, kind of met some executives, and then we walked over about 10 minutes to this Transparency and Accountability center nearby.
Lizzie O’Leary: Louise Matsakis, who covers Tech and China for Semafor, was one of the journalists on the tour.
Louise Matsakis: It was sort of like an app museum almost. You could sort of walk around. They had, you know, sort of a big type of, you know, interactive touch screens that you might see in Children’s Museum. They had some computer exhibits where you could sort of practice being a content moderator. Honestly, I thought it was pretty cool. But I think one of the sort of gigantic elephants in the room is that it was very obvious to me that everyone there was very careful not to mention China.
Lizzie O’Leary: Which seemed both expected and darkly amusing since China and fear of China was driving this whole dog and pony show anyway. Ticktalk, as you surely know, is the social network of the moment and probably most young people’s first destination for entertainment online. But Tiktok’s parent company, Bytedance, is Chinese.
Louise Matsakis: And Tick Tock is sort of their breakout international success. They’re definitely not the only Chinese company that has moved abroad like this, but they’re certainly one of only a very small handful that have gotten incredibly successful abroad, particularly in the US. And, you know, sort of since it became popular, you know, I think in like 2019 or early 2020 when lawmakers started catching on, this has been sort of an ongoing problem for them.
Lizzie O’Leary: And so today on the show, Louise helps us sort through tiktok’s big problem, a mix of national security, moral panic and politics. I’m Lizzie O’Leary and you’re listening to what next TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick around. Tick tock.
Lizzie O’Leary: Bans aren’t entirely new. Former President Trump tried one in 2020 only to have it blocked in federal court. But lately they’ve picked up speed. In December, President Biden signed a ban on Tik Tok on government devices. And just this week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced a TikTok ban not just on state issued devices but also on personal ones used for state business. More than 30 states now have some kind of TikTok ban. That could mean you can’t use the app on a state issued device or network or on a state university system’s WiFi. On the one hand, it sounds like a lot. But on the other, the bands can be pretty easy to get around. And it’s not like they apply to most people’s everyday devices. Which leads Louise to say that a lot of this is just posturing.
Louise Matsakis: I think that sometimes politics is as dumb as it looks and that this is really just an effort to look tough on China at a moment when tensions between the US and Beijing are, you know, the worst that they’ve been in a really long time. I mean, we all saw sort of like, you know, the hoopla over the Chinese spy balloon. I actually saw some lawmakers compare that to Tik Tok. They said, you know, Americans have a spy balloon on their phones every day.
Louise Matsakis: So I think what you’re seeing, particularly in the last few months, is that this has become not only sort of a Republican issue or something that only Trump was talking about, but there’s really sort of a growing bipartisan consensus about the concerns about China’s growing power and particularly when it comes to technology. I think the worst impact that you could potentially have is like a college student has to connect to tick tock on their, you know, cell phone plan that their parents are paying for instead of the school wire, five potato chips at the end of my school, they literally won’t be able to access to talk at all.
Louise Matsakis: I’m a public university. I worked on the University of Chicago. I spent years making know people and name a few spots that sort of like the extent of it or, you know, your local, you know, state government maybe had a tick tock account where they shared, you know, policy initiatives or something and they are not able to run that tick tock account anymore. So it’s pretty minimal, but it’s a way for state lawmakers to say, hey, we are being tough on China, We are worried about this app, we’re cracking down on it. We’re doing something, but we’re going to protect ourselves from a legal lawsuit or from potentially, you know, significantly disrupting the lives of voters to the point where there might be backlash.
Lizzie O’Leary: I want to look at this from a couple of different angles. And I guess first, I want to take the language and I’ll use Greg Abbott as the test case here of some of the lawmakers and politicians talking about these bans. He says tick tock harvests vast amount of data from its users devices, including when, where and how they conduct Internet activity and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government. You have been covering China on technology for a long time. Can you like evaluate that statement for me? Is it accurate?
Louise Matsakis: So I think we should divide it into two parts. The first part is the type of data that TikTok collects. The second part is whether that data is shared with the Chinese government. So on the first part, the way that Abbott describes Tick tock kind of sounds like any other app that we have on our phones, right? That’s exactly what Facebook does or what Instagram or Twitter or, you know, any sort of like gaming app does. They collect information about your behavior in order to typically serve you advertisements or to package that data and then sell it to the highest bidder. This is an ongoing problem that lots of privacy advocates have been begging the federal government to address for years. But we haven’t been able to pass a national privacy law. So there’s no regulations, you know, no modern regulations about how this activity occurs. So, fine, I totally agree with the first thing that he’s saying.
Louise Matsakis: The second part about the Chinese government being able to have access to this data. A lot of these lawmakers are pointing to a national security law that passed and came into effect in China a few years ago, which does sort of, you know, give the government the authority to request information on national security grounds. And there’s not a lot of ability for these companies to say no. But there’s no indication that that has happened in this case. There’s no indication that this data is being collected by the Chinese government. And also, I think it’s just worth pointing out that I’m not sure that they would want to you know, I’m sure that some of the, you know, direct messages or, you know, some of the information on TikTok would certainly be valuable for any sort of foreign adversary to the U.S. government. But as a number of other experts have pointed out, they hacked the U.S. personnel office. You know, they don’t know there are.
Lizzie O’Leary: Better ways to do this than Tik Tok.
Louise Matsakis: Much more efficient ways that would not jeopardize one of the most successful international companies to ever sort of like come out of China. Right. I’m not sure that, like, the costs and benefits are necessarily worth it unless there was sort of like, you know, a very specific target. And I don’t think that that specific target is a college students, you know, at a state school or the social media manager of your local library who is running a TikTok account. I just don’t really see the 1 to 1 comparison here. And I also don’t see the rationale for.
Louise Matsakis: Marketing this app. Other than that, it’s become a household name, right? There are plenty of other Chinese apps that Americans use, you know, not to single this one out in particular, but over the last few months I’ve been following how Teemu, which is a shopping app owned by one of the biggest shopping companies in China, Pinduoduo has been at the top of the app charts, right? So like, why are we going after this specific app instead of trying to craft a policy that would address this data collection? And what you can do with the sensitive data you collect from people’s phones writ large.
Lizzie O’Leary: It’s tempting to draw a parallel between TikTok and Huawei. In 2020, the British government decided to ban wild way equipment on the UK’s 5G network and remove any existing Huawei gear over national security concerns. But Lewis says it would be a mistake to think of these two cases as a pair.
Louise Matsakis: I think that that’s a very different case from an app on your phone because I think if your government bans, you know, while away from building 5G technology in your country, there’s not a speech issue. And so I think one of the reasons that you’re seeing these sort of state bans and not an outright ban, I think there are a few reasons. But one of them is that, you know, when Trump tried to outright ban TikTok in 2020, there were immediately, you know, First Amendment concerns. And there are also other concerns, you know, legal concerns that would come up. The similarity between those cases is that they’re big Chinese tech giants and there’s a national security concern, but they’re actual businesses. And the role they play sort of in our economy and in our culture are so vastly different that I think that’s why you are seeing lawmakers behave differently because they don’t have the same set of tools that they could against what we.
Lizzie O’Leary: The other idea that’s been floated here is that somehow TikTok could be used as a tool for propaganda that that certain types of content would be pushed on users for you. Page. What do you think of that?
Louise Matsakis: It’s certainly possible that they could use the for you page, which is sort of the main algorithm that powers ticktalk to show, you know, certain propaganda to Americans. I can’t rule out that possibility, but I’ve seen no evidence of it. And again, I just don’t know if that would be the best way to carry out a foreign influence campaign.
Louise Matsakis: You know, people have talked about like, what if they show people, you know, content about not voting, you know, or pro-China content or, you know, anti Taiwan content or anti Tibet content or something like that. And what I have seen the last few years is that when there is even sort of the slightest indication that something like that is happening, tiktok’s user base goes crazy. So I’m just not sure that that would work. It’s possible and it’s something that I can’t discount. And what TikTok would say is that they are proposing that an American company, Oracle, would be able to sort of audit their algorithms and would be responsible for sending any code updates to the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store. So that’s supposed to be a safeguard. But I think these algorithms are really complicated, and even such an extreme safeguard might not fully protect us from that.
Louise Matsakis: But again, if that is the concern, why are we only considering a single app? Because if we do ban TikTok or, you know, we decide that the propaganda concerns are too significant or that even a 1% chance is too much, what happens when the next app comes along or what happens when they continue using American social media platforms to launch propaganda campaigns? You know, one of the platforms that we’ve seen this happen on over and over again is Twitter. And by all accounts from the public reporting, the people who watch those campaigns and who reported them to the public don’t work at Twitter anymore. So what’s stopping the Chinese government from saying, okay, you, you know, took Tik tok away from us, we’re just going to switch over to Twitter, Right. I just don’t think that it solves the problems. I’m certainly sympathetic to the concerns, but I guess the remedy is where I start to, you know, sort of ask questions.
Lizzie O’Leary: When we come back. Tiktok’s convoluted plan to stay in the US.
Lizzie O’Leary: One of the reasons that I wanted to talk to Louise is that she’s been covering the debate over TikTok for years. Since 2019, TikTok has been negotiating with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a government office also known as serious about how it can operate in the U.S..
Louise Matsakis: So over the course of many months and at this point years, they have sort of negotiated this really complicated and frankly, very intense deal in which TikTok is going to create. They already have created. You know, when I was there, I could actually see the separate why fine network for this subsidiary called U.S. Ads that TikTok runs. And it’s supposed to be the only entity that can access US user data. So everyone who works at Ucsd’s is going to be a green card holder or a U.S. citizen. Everyone who’s hired is going to have oversight. The subsidiary is supposed to be managed by a number of sort of oversight committees, and there’s going to be a bunch of checks to ensure that anything that comes in or out of this subsidiary is managed. And a lot of that sort of oversight activity is supposed to be done by Oracle, which is this US company.
Lizzie O’Leary: Oracle is headquartered in Austin, Texas, and the whole plan became known inside Tick Tock as Project Texas.
Louise Matsakis: That process became public in 2020 when Trump tried to outright ban TikTok, which as we all know, didn’t work. So that’s sort of where we’re at, is that this obvious deal has been arranged. You know, all the specifics are sort of in place.
Lizzie O’Leary: But it seems like maybe negotiations are stuck. This is not, to be frank, a great time for the Biden administration to be seen as cutting a deal with a Chinese company. And that was even before the whole spy balloon drama.
Louise Matsakis: You know, the Biden administration doesn’t want to agree to it because they don’t want to look like they are making a deal with a Chinese company. So that leaves tech talks sort of at an impasse. And I think one of the reasons that they wanted to have reporters like me come visit their offices recently is to say, hey, you know, Project Texas is basically done. We’re starting to implement it. We’ve already spent, you know, $1.5 billion implementing it. And I guess we’re just going to keep going until we get, you know, some sort of sign from the Biden administration.
Louise Matsakis: So I think it’s sort of ironic because if these concerns are as serious and pressing as lawmakers have made them out to be, basically all we have right now is tech talks, word that they’re doing these security precautions that they say they are because we don’t actually have, you know, a binding deal in place. So right now, basically, everything is just the same, except students at universities in Georgia or whatever cannot access tech talk on their wi fi networks. And that to me is just sort of really silly, especially given how long this issue has been discussed in the news and has sort of been in the headlines.
Lizzie O’Leary: I wonder how all of this gets resolved or doesn’t going forward because the TikTok CEO is going to testify to Congress next month. What do you think we might hear?
Louise Matsakis: I think you’re going to hear a lot of rhetoric about China. And I think what has sort of happened is that this company has become a poster child for the influence of Chinese investors, Chinese companies, you know, Chinese technology in the US. So I think that that is what you’re going to see. And I think the fact that TikTok finally decided to have their CEO testify, I think is a sign that they are trying everything they can. You know, they’re having journalists to their office there talking about project checks as publicly They are, you know, having their executives talk to journalists. I think this is sort of the last card that they haven’t used. Right. Is like having their CEO come testify.
Lizzie O’Leary: For people who care about Internet freedom and especially the unfettered flow of information across borders. This all feels worrisome.
Louise Matsakis: I think no matter what happens, this is a pretty troubling precedent for sort of, you know, the global Internet. I think one of the things that I really liked about the Internet growing up is that it was this really interconnected, you know, really international place where everybody had the same YouTube app, everybody had the same Facebook app for the most part, right? Like, there were really no local laws and regulations. But I think this could be the start of sort of a more fractured Internet where, you know, my data is protected through Tik Tok usage.
Louise Matsakis: Yes. But, you know, someone in Sweden’s data flows through maybe a different subsidiary or a different set of protocols, and perhaps we’re still able to talk to each other, but maybe eventually we won’t be able to. And what I’ve noticed also is that other Chinese tech companies, I don’t you know, I can’t say because of what they’ve seen happen to Tik Tok, but I’ve watched them launch more. Regional apps. And I think that that’s sort of what you’re going to see is like, you know, a company launching an app, it’s only available in Latin America that’s only available in Africa or in Southeast Asia. You know, partially perhaps to avoid some of these issues. And then you could just tailor that app to the local market. But, you know, I think what’s sad about that, you know, you call me a globalist, I guess. But what’s sad about that is you lose sort of that international interconnectedness. And I think that that will be a really different Internet if that’s sort of how things continue.
Lizzie O’Leary: Yeah, it seems like there’s like a hard and soft version of that. Maybe the soft version is the the app tailored to a region. And the hard version of that is banning things outright.
Louise Matsakis: I think that’s a good way to put it. Yeah.
Lizzie O’Leary: And maybe like, I feel like I need to point this out here. Like places that are banning apps, that is what authoritarian regimes do and have done.
Louise Matsakis: Yeah, definitely. I think one of the arguments that you saw initially when we were talking about banning Tik is while the Chinese government bans Facebook and Twitter, so why can’t we ban TikTok? And while I understand, you know, the sort of like on the face logic of that, the reason that China originally started banning those apps is for censorship reasons. You know, the sort of byproduct. And the fact was that they were able to sort of grow regional tech ecosystem that has become really powerful and made a lot of money. But most of the time we talk about banning apps, we’re talking about censorship. And I think that that is just true. And in this case it will be construed that way. And I think it’s a really bad precedent when U.S. policymakers in the future try to criticize another country for banning an app. I think it’s gonna be really easy just to turn around and say, like, will you ban TikTok or you tried to ban Tik Tok.
Lizzie O’Leary: Do you ever see that happening? A full ban?
Louise Matsakis: I think that a full ban would be incredibly difficult. You know, never say never. But I think that immediately you would see a lot of free speech lawsuits. You would see lawsuits over the First Amendment. There’s also something that I hadn’t really heard of until recently. It’s these measures that we passed in the Cold War, which are called the Berman amendments. And they actually protect Americans ability to see information from foreign adversaries. So they make it illegal to sort of, you know, ban a Russian book just because it’s from Russia or something like that. So I think you could see, you know, legal lawsuits based on the Berman amendment or on the First Amendment, even if the government were able to sort of overcome those legal hurdles, I think that you would potentially have a serious political liability.
Louise Matsakis: And that is the fact that millions of Americans use this app every day. And I would venture to say that tens of thousands of them are directly or indirectly employed by TikTok, you know, lots of small businesses who make money from the app influencers who that’s the main source of their income. And while I think a lot of those people, you know, they’re also on platforms like Facebook or they’re on platforms like YouTube. For a lot of them, you know, Tik Tok is sort of their livelihood. And I think that politicians are risking that contingent becoming more political, you know, here in Los Angeles. You know, it seems like everyone in this town is on TikTok and making money from it. And a lot of those people vote. I think that right now lawmakers are betting on the fact that that is not a demographic that is known to swing elections. But I think that they might be playing with fire, particularly because a lot of those people have a lot of influence. Right. So if you start seeing influencers talking about, you know, I lost my livelihood because Biden banned TikTok, that could be a concern in 2024.
Lizzie O’Leary: You’ve covered this for many years now, and I wonder, like, is there a good way for this to end? Like, is there an off ramp for everybody that that might save some face?
Louise Matsakis: I think what I have learned the last few years as a reporter covering tech in China is that I am an optimist. And every time I think that the situation can get worse, it always does. So at this point, I don’t want to bet that it’s going to get better. I wish that the off ramp was passing a national privacy law.
Lizzie O’Leary: Like what exists in Europe.
Louise Matsakis: Yes, exactly. Exactly. If we could have our own GDPR or we could have some sort of regulations about how information can be collected and sold. I think that that would be a great compromise. And and perhaps, you know, in that alternate universe, Biden is able to sort of communicate effectively that this is a solution that does impact talk.
Louise Matsakis: Right. But it’s a stronger solution because it will also impact, you know, any other Chinese app or any app from Russia or any app that’s created by Americans that is vulnerable to being hacked by a foreign adversary. I think that is the best case scenario, but I don’t necessarily see a lot of excitement in Congress right now to do something like that. I think there are people who might disagree with me. And, you know, I think that our efforts to pass the national privacy law have gotten some attention, you know, and the legislation is moving. But I don’t know if it’s moving fast enough. And I think that right now it’s just so enticing to seem tough on China. And TikTok is a household name that everybody knows, I think even more so than Weiwei. You know, a lot of people were, you know, didn’t have a Weiwei phone or weren’t that familiar with the company. But even if you don’t have tick tock, maybe your children do, or your niece or your nephew or your students or something. So it’s just too appealing right now to look tough on this company.
Lizzie O’Leary: Louise Matsakis, Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Louise Matsakis: Thanks, Lizzie It was great to talk with you.
Lizzie O’Leary: Louise Matsakis covers technology and China for Semafor. And that is it for our show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show is edited by Jonathan Fisher. Alisha montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger What Next Family and we’re also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. And if you’re a fan of the show, I have a little request. Join Slate Plus. Just head on over to Slate.com Slash what next?
Lizzie O’Leary: Plus, to sign up. All right. We’ll be back on Sunday with another episode on Tech behind bars. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.