BEIJING – TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew recently faced a grilling from US lawmakers concerning data security and harmful content on the popular short-video app. As tensions rise, a nationwide ban on TikTok has been suggested by some politicians. In an attempt to fend off such a ban, Chew, who hails from Singapore, assured lawmakers that user safety is TikTok’s top priority, downplaying the app’s ties to China. Lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties questioned Chew extensively on topics such as content moderation practices, data security plans, and past incidents of spying on journalists. In this article, we’ll explore the concerns surrounding TikTok and its ownership.
WHY IS WASHINGTON CONCERNED ABOUT TIKTOK?
TikTok, which boasts more than 150 million American users, is a subsidiary of Chinese technology firm ByteDance Ltd., which appoints its executives. Although ByteDance is registered in the Cayman Islands, it is based in Beijing. TikTok has dual headquarters in Singapore and Los Angeles. Founded in 2012 by Chinese entrepreneur Zhang Yiming, ByteDance is valued at around $220 billion. However, the regulatory crackdown imposed by China’s ruling Communist Party has led to a decline in the value of Chinese tech companies. Western governments worry that Chinese authorities could force ByteDance to hand over sensitive information about American users. Despite China denying these claims, concerns about national security persist.
WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS OF WESTERN GOVERNMENTS REGARDING CHINESE RULES?
China’s National Intelligence Law from 2017 indicates that any organization must cooperate with state intelligence activities. The Counter-Espionage Law from 2014 states that relevant organizations must collect evidence for investigations. As ByteDance is a Chinese company, it would likely have to comply with these regulations if requested to provide data. Additionally, the Communist Party of China holds significant power over technology companies through various means such as “window guidance” and board seats, enabling the party to exert control. These factors contribute to concerns about TikTok’s potential data sharing.
MUST TIKTOK SUBMIT USER DATA IF REQUIRED BY THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT?
TikTok intends to protect American user data by storing it on servers operated by Oracle Corp. in a project called “Project Texas.” According to Chew, all new user data from the United States will be stored locally, and older data from non-Oracle servers should be deleted by the end of this year. Although there are fears that ByteDance might have to comply with Chinese authorities’ demands for data access, Chew assures that “Project Texas” will prevent such actions. However, it is important to note that some ByteDance employees in China retain access to certain U.S. data until the project is fully implemented.
HOW MUCH INFLUENCE DOES THE COMMUNIST PARTY HAVE OVER BYTEDANCE?
During the recent hearing, lawmakers attempted to ascertain the relationship between ByteDance and China’s Communist Party. Chew evaded questions about the political affiliations of staff and top executives. He emphasized that the founder of ByteDance is not a Communist Party member and denied claims that the party holds a “golden share” in ByteDance, which would grant it control of one board seat. Chew stated that the party does not possess voting rights in ByteDance. While ByteDance’s main Chinese subsidiary holds licenses in the China market, TikTok operates independently from Beijing ByteDance Technology Co., which oversees platforms like Douyin and Toutiao.
WHAT IS DOUYIN, AND HOW IS IT RELATED TO TIKTOK?
Douyin is ByteDance’s short-video platform for the Chinese market, similar to TikTok. It is subject to Chinese censorship rules that forbid subversive or pornographic content. The Chinese government’s internet filters prevent most users in China from accessing TikTok. ByteDance has clarified that TikTok has no affiliation with Beijing ByteDance Technology Co. or other services and platforms operated by its subsidiary.
CHINA’S REACTION TO THE TIKTOK CEO’S TESTIMONY
Chinese social media users have reacted sympathetically to Chew’s testimony in Washington, praising his handling of the challenging questions. Many Chinese commenters criticized US lawmakers for what they perceived as leading or “trap” questions. It appears that tensions regarding TikTok have fueled online discussions in both countries.
This article is based on the original content by Associated Press Business Writer Kelvin Chan in London.