TikTok is the most popular app in the United States. 150 million Americans – almost half the population – use it every month. The app offers an endless, scrolling wonderland of humor, music, dancing, tips, opinion and information – short videos posted by fellow TikTok fans, and all delivered to you according to your interests. And for about five million businesses, TikTok is also a marketing tool.
Baedri Nichole, founder of a bakery in Columbus, Ohio, said of TikTok, “It’s taught me how to do e-commerce, how to get into shipping. and more than anything, I also use it to find my next customer. Prior to getting on TikTok, we were struggling even to turn a profit.”
And now? “We’ve seen at least a 300% increase in profit,” she said.
So, if Americans love TikTok so much, why has Congress proposed so many bills that could ban the app?
And why, during a Congressional hearing last month, did TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew face comments like this one from Rep. Kathryn Cammack (R-Fla.): “You damn well know that you cannot protect the data and security of this committee, or the 150 million users of your app”?
Congress has four primary concerns about TikTok. First, that TikTok collects data about you; second, that kids get addicted to spending time on TikTok; and third, that people can find misinformation and violence. Of course, all of this is also true about Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.
So, what’s the difference? Chinese influence. “TikTok has a parent company named ByteDance, and ByteDance is a Chinese company that has to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.).
Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) said, “All social media is not necessarily great for kids, but that is a fundamental distinction in terms of dealing with the TikTok issue.”
Krishnamoorthi and Gallagher are co-sponsors of one of the “Ban TikTok” bills. And their biggest worry is control of information. Gallagher said, “The thing that most concerns me, however, is the ability to control what storylines Americans see, or don’t see, and ultimately influence our elections, which could be catastrophic in the future.”
However, Milton Mueller, a professor of cybersecurity and public policy at Georgia Tech, studied the theory that TikTok’s algorithms attempt to influence ideology. He said, “There’s absolutely no indication that this is in some way manipulated or controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. We just found that to be a complete fabrication. You can find information about Uyghur repression, you can find information that ridicules Xi Jinping. It’s all there.”
In the heat of the battle, both TikTok execs and Congress members sometimes stretch the truth. Take, for example, the business of data collection. At the Congressional hearing on TikTok, Rep. Cathy Rodgers (R-Wash.) said, “TikTok collects nearly every data point imaginable.”
Mueller disputes this: “There have been three technical studies done of this. They basically all say it is exactly what they tell you it is in their privacy statement.”
Like every social-media app, TikTok collects data like your phone model, its internet IP address, and your time zone. Unlike other apps, TikTok does not know your name or your GPS location. It knows only your general area, like what town you’re in.
So, where does this all leave us? Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi’s bill, called the Anti-Social CCP Act (HR 1081), intends to force the issue. “It would basically allow for two outcomes in this case,” said Gallagher. “One would be a ban of the app altogether; or it would allow for a sale to an American company.”
Pogue asked, “Hasn’t somebody in your immediate circle said, ‘Guys, banning TikTok will be a political disaster’?”
“Well, I would say allowing this to continue would be a geopolitical disaster,” Gallagher replied. “And that, to me, is far more important than angering some teenagers.”
So, sell TikTok, or ban it? Selling it might be impossible – though worth a lot, the Chinese Communist Party may object to a sale. As for banning TikTok, Mueller said, “There’s probably a 90% chance that that would be ruled unconstitutional [because of] the First Amendment. You’re banning an information source, you’re banning a publication. I have to emphasize this: if you ban TikTok, it’s not the Chinese Government that would be silenced; it’s the 150 million American users of the app. Those are the ones whose free speech rights would be violated by a ban.”
But TikTok is proposing a third option. CEO Shou Chew mentioned it frequently in his testimony: “Project Texas” is a proposal to move TikTok’s entire operation to the U.S., to put all of its data, and even those top-secret algorithms, under the supervision of Oracle, an American company. “The bottom line is this: American data stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel,” said Shou. “This eliminates the concern that some of you have shared with me that TikTok user data can be subject to Chinese law.”
Congress isn’t sold. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), said to Shou, “I still believe that the Beijing Communist government will still control and have the ability to influence what you do.”
Mueller believes that attacking TikTok is an easy way for politicians to look tough on China: “TikTok is a symbolic way for these people to attack even the most innocent forms of interaction between the Chinese digital economy and the U.S. digital economy.”
As for Baedri Nichole, she’s become a “Save TikTok” activist. TikTok even flew her and 25 other fans to Washington, to join a rally against the ban.
Nichole has some advice for Congress: “After the Congressional hearing, it was very clear that you may not have done all of your due diligence that you owe us as your constituents. You really need to get on the app and have a better understanding of the decisions being made, and how it’s going to affect the greater good of the people.”
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Story produced by Amy Wall. Editor: Chad Cardin.