Is TikTok’s time running out?

Since TikTok has become the most downloaded consumer app in the world, the question of when the ByteDance-owned service would face a level of scrutiny commensurate with its status remains open. By now, it seems clear that that moment is now.

During a hearing before the US Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas was harshly questioned by lawmakers. They had raised questions about the company’s connection to its parent company, its relationship with the Chinese government and the potential for misuse of US data. And while on one level it was simply our Senate’s last chance to gain exposure to the tech industry without doing anything to regulate it, the hearing also showed the growing momentum to take more action. final against TikTok.

“Are there any Chinese Communist Party members employed by TikTok or ByteDance, or not? scolded Missouri insurgent Josh Hawley, who fashioned himself into an anti-tech crusader.

Emily Baker-White captured what happened next at Forbes:

Pappas replied that no one who “makes a strategic decision on this platform” is a member of the CCP. But as for the rest of the app’s staff, she said the company doesn’t vet its employees based on their political affiliations. She noted that no other technology platform present at the hearing asks its employees which political parties they belong to.

Hawley continued: “Would you be surprised to learn that Forbes Magazine recently reported that at least 300 current employees of TikTok or ByteDance were members of Chinese state media? Pappas reiterated that the company does “not look at individuals’ political affiliations.”

Visibly frustrated, Hawley said, “Your company has a lot to hide. You’re a walking security nightmare, and for every American who uses this app, I’m worried.

This exchange captured the essentially impossible nature of the situation TikTok finds itself in.

On the one hand, it’s true that the other companies at the helm today – Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – don’t ask employees what their political parties are. You can imagine the howls if they did.

On the other hand, it seems fair to ask whether any TikTok employees are members of the Chinese Communist Party, at least insofar as that would create leverage within the company that could allow the Chinese government to influence the company or obtain Americans’ data without the officially demand. (Officially, China never did, according to TikTok’s transparency report and public statements.)

Considering the thousands of people who work for ByteDance and TikTok, and the fact that the Chinese Communist Party has over 95 million members, it is certain that some ByteDance employees are party members. But Pappas couldn’t even bring himself to say that — and no matter how performative Hawley’s exasperation on that front was, the mistrust TikTok is now engendering among lawmakers on that front seems real.

The claim sounds laughable – and reporters continue to find smoke around what may in fact be a fire

TikTok’s task is impossible because to earn the full trust of senators, it must prove a negative: that China has never sought to use the app for influence or surveillance, never will, and will not. could ever even if she tried. Society swears high and low that nothing like this could ever happen.

TikTok has denied or shared important caveats to all of these stories, which I covered here in detail last month. Most important, in my opinion, is that technology companies find it extremely difficult to track data flows in general and struggle to properly log access, manage permissions, and understand the origin of the data and metadata that pass through their servers. (There’s a lot of that, for example in Pieter “Mudge” Zatko’s whistleblower complaint against Twitter.)

After today’s hearing, however, it now seems clear that TikTok will be held to a higher standard than its rivals in this regard. When Facebook or Twitter are found to have mishandled user data or accidentally employed a foreign agent, the worst they can expect are fines and theatrical grandstanding at a congressional hearing. For ByteDance, however, the same crimes risk the equivalent of a death sentence – TikTok being completely banned, as it was in India in 2020; or be forced to give it up, as former President Trump attempted while in office.

TikTok’s approach to all of this has been to market its “transparency” – to reveal more about its operations and algorithms than any of its peers. In a blog post later Wednesday — titled “Strengthening Our Commitment to Transparency,” of course — Pappas said that, among other things, the company would begin flagging secret influencer networks found in the app, just like Facebook has been doing this for years now.

This is in addition to a series of other measures that most of its peers have not tried, including still embryonic efforts to provide APIs to researchers to help them study both platform content form and how TikTok moderates it. The company also said last month that it would let Oracle regularly check its models for recommendations and moderation systems.

As I listened to the questions from senators today, I wondered: how could such an agreement resolve these questions definitively?

These are commendable efforts, and I’m glad TikTok is continuing them. But we’ve now been two years into TikTok’s era of true transparency, which began with the (virtual) opening of its first physical “transparency center”, where lawmakers and other interested parties were to be invited to inspect and understand its algorithms closely.

These measures may have worked at the time. Trump’s efforts to forcibly hand over TikTok to his campaign donors were still well underway at the time, but fell apart when the president turned his attention to more pressing issues, such as how to cancel the election. that he lost. I doubt “transparency” has much to do with it, but at the very least President Biden took a softer tone against ByteDance when he took office.

But how long will this still last? The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, always conducts a security review of the app. Testifying today, Pappas said TikTok is getting closer to reaching an agreement with the US government that will put an end to these issues for good. Yet, as I listened to questions from senators today, I wondered: How could such an agreement do that?

Particularly because, as I noted here earlier this week, more and more executives have started beating the drum that maybe TikTok should be banned after all. At the Code Conference in Los Angeles last week, Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner said TikTok should be banned in all democracies; Snap CEO Evan Spiegel in his comments didn’t push for any particular outcome, but made it clear that he was following the CFIUS review closely. (For his part, Meta conducted a nationwide influence operation intended to embitter everyone on his chief rival.)

In short, we’ve come to a time when some of the most influential people in the United States, from its lawmakers to its industry executives, stand to gain by pressing the same dot: that a ByteDance-owned TikTok is not good for America.

(I would also add that this has become an increasingly popular point in the press; recently Ezra Klein and Ben Thompson did case studies for ByteDance to part ways with the app.)

In his opening statement today, Pappas notably avoided any mention of China. In the company’s narrative, it’s a pure entertainment app, owned by a company incorporated in the Cayman Islands, created by a distributed global workforce that happens to have Chinese employees.

At the end of the day, however, it didn’t seem like many senators were buying it. And I suspect that could lead, sooner or later, to ByteDance having to sell it.

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