TikTok: Is It An Instrument Of The Chinese Government?

Bang the drums.

Gird up your loins.

The trade war is hotting up.

If you’re interested and invested in Chinese tech, you need to prepare yourselves for any one of many difficult possibilities that lie ahead.

The U.S. and Chinese governments have been at each other’s throats since 2018. Presidents of each country increased tariffs on imported goods. They slowed down the other’s economy.

We felt the consequences on a global scale.

Woven into this contentious narrative is the issue of data privacy within certain Chinese-based apps like TikTok.

To make matters worse, this happened after intellectual property theft from American companies, by Chinese tech company Huawei.

Suspicions Sprouted From Defence Concerns

In January 2019, concerns rose within the American government. TikTok’s popularity among the U.S. armed forces exposed a vulnerability to the app’s data privacy laws.

TikTok is an American subsidiary of its ByteDance parent in Bejing. China’s Internet Security Laws require ByteDance to share data with the Chinese government.

This leaves open the possibility that TikTok can send location, image, and biometric data, garnered from its American users, back to Chinese intelligence. It is especially concerning when juxtaposed against the national defence and intelligence departments.

The secret and restricted locations of armed forces and other military personnel could have been a part of that data. The U.S. Defence then discouraged and banned the app among its employees. The Australian Defence Department soon followed.

Misuse of Data Privacy Among Millions of Users?

Video-sharing social network TikTok now has an estimated 800 million active monthly users.

If the above concerns are true, then ByteDance could have misused personal data of all its users.

People raised suspicions in 2019, after the debate over the American forces.

In February 2019, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined the parent company ByteDance $5.7 million, for illegally storing personal data of minors under 13 years of age. There were also concomitant worries that pedophiles and hackers could use this information for their own dubious purposes.

By the end of that year, hard questions were being asked.

In November 2019, Senator Josh Hawley was instrumental in passing the National Security And Data Protection Act to prevent Chinese companies from storing more-than-necessary data on American users.

Around the same time, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) opened an investigation into TikTok’s acquisition of American social media platform Musically.

TikTok countered back with assertions that their data is stored outside China, and can’t be accessed by the Chinese government. But since TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is under the Orwellian law of the Chinese government, it is difficult to see who is being honest here.

And it’s not like TikTok has had a squeaky clean image.

TikTok moderators have been known to suppress posts and videos made by disabled, poor, and ugly users. This was said to reduce bullying of these users. However, the irony of trying to stop bullying by undermining the very accounts of the bullied seems counterproductive and underhanded.

Then, TikTok moderators were also known to suppress politically included posts, especially those that leveled criticism at a government or regime. This entailed that the TikTok and ByteDance corporation was not above manipulating user accounts for their own purposes.

So where does it stop?

Simultaneous Investigations In Other Nations

In February 2019, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the United Kingdom launched an investigation into the child data privacy laws and raised concerns over the open messaging system on the platform.

In April 2019, the Indian government, advised by the Madras High Court, temporarily banned TikTok on grounds that it gave rise to a lot of inappropriate content, as well as left children vulnerable to sexual predators. The ban was lifted within three weeks after TikTok complied by deleting 6 million “inappropriate” videos.

However, the Indian government banned TikTok outright in June 2020, amid rising tensions due to a military clash along the norther Indochinese border. The government cited China being a threat to Indian sovereignty as a reason for the ban. They said there were security concerns over their apps. 58 other Chinese apps were also banned in the nation.

Recently, in June 2020, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) decided to create a task force dedicated to investigating the role of TikTok across the European Union bloc. Special concerns fell over the use of minors’ data.

American Companies Could Fill Vacuum

The fact of the matter is that TikTok’s data privacy policies are still a mystery. If it turns out that most of these investigations uncover evidence of the company providing the Chinese government with sensitive personal data, then the future of the app is doomed.

However, it could also turn out to be a red herring. An excuse to get American companies ahead. If the suspicion mounted by these governments continues to erode TikTok’s reputation and stocks, local and domestic companies could benefit from their demise.

American companies such as Facebook could seek to usurp the app’s stranglehold within the U.S. (and perhaps globally) through its Instagram Reels initiative. They have already launched their initiative in Brazil and India—the latter just a few days after TikTok was banned in India!

The CFIUS could force ByteDance to sell (TikTok’s subsidiary) to an American competitor like Facebook, should they uncover evidence against TikTok. But even if they don’t uncover evidence, TikTok’s reputation has taken such a beating, that Facebook might still get their foot between the door.

What To Believe

Maybe the issue will continue to stay obscure to most of the world. The trade war between China and the U.S. doesn’t seek to reassure us of the validity of each side’s claims.

This is why the investigations launched from other nations might be more important to the overall story.

We need to observe each side of the story with a nuanced lens. The ambiguity of power obfuscates and misleads a considerable amount of organizations and people.

What will China’s Development Policy be after Covid-19?

The many different trade and aid policies being pursued by China globally have been heavily criticised but can developing countries become more independent or will China’s policy reform?

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