Opinion | Be Wary of TikTok, Just Don’t Ban It


I confess: I have a TikTok-designated burner phone.

The short-video sharing service sucked me in immediately with its algorithmically perfect cascade of videos that has been designed to entertain me for forever.

I marvel at how smoothly it works. I am even more gobsmacked by the creativity on display — by many kinds of people, both professional entertainers and just regular folks (and not just teenagers).

It is perhaps the best social media — with an emphasis on media — network to come along in quite a while. Simply put, it is a wonderful tech product.

Just recently: The shoe-jumping people. The superhero suit-switching guy. Fabulous lesbian pairs like Madison Bailey and Mariah Linney. The chai-making-judging stylings of Kevin Wilson, he of the perpetually raised eyebrow. And of course, the comic Sarah Cooper’s epic and eviscerating Trump translating.

TikTok, of course, has many of the problems that plague other social media platforms: the haters, the liars, the toxic posters. But it is — for now — one of the better places to spend time online, compared with other similar services.

Still, I don’t want TikTok on my main iPhone. The reason is obvious to most people who have been paying attention to the news of late: I worry about security and surveillance because TikTok is owned by a Chinese company (called ByteDance).

In some ways, I feel stupid revving up my Google Pixel to use one app since there is no proof of nefarious behavior by TikTok. And many American tech companies whose services live on my mobile phone are, let’s be honest, data thieves themselves.

But while the efforts by U.S. companies to suck up personal data and turn it into revenue are ongoing, the many tech firms operating in China can be influenced and even controlled by the Chinese government. With quite a lot of confidential information on my phone, I have become extra wary.

Let me be clear: I am not faux indignant with a Mike Pompeo-level of alarm about TikTok. The secretary of state recently made one of this administration’s typically disingenuous threats that it might move to ban the app for security reasons, while also referencing actions taken against other Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE.

TikTok pushed back, noting after the Pompeo barb that the company has an American chief executive and hundreds of key leaders based in the United States.

“We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users,” a TikTok representative said in a statement. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.” Though small, with only 35 people on staff, TikTok has also leaned into significantly upgrading its lobbying forces in Washington.

That makes sense since the anti-TikTok sentiment is gaining steam in the capital. Aside from Mr. Pompeo’s bluster, there is a Republican bill in Congress pushed by Senator Josh Hawley to ban the app on federal phones, and many companies have also expressed worries about its use on corporate phones. There is also a previous and continuing effort spearheaded by Senator Marco Rubio for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to look more closely at the 2017 acquisition by ByteDance of Musical.ly, which later became TikTok.

Democrats have also begun to pile on, backing an effort to look into further violations by TikTok of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, asking regulators to investigate whether the company has since breached a previous $5.7 million settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over the illegal collection of children’s personal data.

TikTok is also getting flack abroad, such as a recent move by India in a sweeping banning of 59 Chinese apps, noting they posed threats to the country’s “sovereignty and security.”

The obvious problem for TikTok is a backdrop of heinous digital surveillance practices by the Chinese government, in its country and elsewhere, sometimes to quash internal dissent and control its population, and sometimes to get a leg up on technology by swiping it. There’s no doubt the Chinese government can control tech firms in China and has been active in disinformation campaigns on social networks.

But, aside from the data collection that resulted in the F.T.C. settlement (a relatively common type of violation), it is still unproven that TikTok is doing what its detractors are alleging. The company has been adamant that it stores U.S. user data in the United States, with back up in Singapore. And then there are complicated tech issues related to mobile phones, which were best expressed by the tech analyst Ben Thompson in a recent post on his Stratchery blog: “Banning TikTok because it is surreptitiously stealing your email doesn’t make technical sense.”

But he also pointed out that TikTok notes in its privacy policy that “we may share your information with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group.”

In other words, just because TikTok doesn’t grab your personal information now does not mean it will not or might not be compelled to do so in the future. (TikTok says such legal language is standard.)

As for China’s increasingly aggressive application of its unconscionable national intelligence law, sources with knowledge of the company tell me TikTok is not bound to it due to its unusual corporate structure. The app, by the way, unavailable in China itself.

There are also worries about censorship, since many things have been disallowed on the app. And, of course, Chinese influence over users. “The point, though, is not just censorship, but its inverse: propaganda,” Mr. Thompson wrote. “TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference.”

He’s right about the concerns and how they will only grow, which is why TikTok needs to take care, as its popularity explodes, to not fritter away a good thing.

There’s one way to make the company’s claims of safety stick. TikTok’s recent hiring of a well-regarded former Disney executive, Kevin Mayer, as chief executive is a flashing signal that the company is likely to spin off of ByteDance as a U.S. company. Going public in America could mean definitively breaking its chains to the Chinese government — and perhaps be the best possible answer to the company’s critics. That would also give TikTok its best shot at becoming a formidable competitor to Facebook.

That would be a good thing, removing the shadow cast by the Chinese government and reassuring users like me who wait in anticipation of Sarah Cooper’s next Trumptastic video.

But until that day, I’m keeping her, the Donald and TikTok on my burner phone.


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