The Media Today

The road to a possible TikTok-Congress deal

September 29, 2022
Solen Feyissa, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

In June, BuzzFeed News published an investigative report based on leaked audio from more than eighty internal meetings at TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned video-sharing app. In the report, labeled “The TikTok Tapes,” Emily Baker-White of BuzzFeed wrote that the recordings—along with fourteen statements from nine TikTok employees—revealed that China-based employees of the company “repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US users of the video-sharing app between September 2021 and January 2022.” As Baker-White pointed out, this directly contradicted a senior TikTok executive’s sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing, in which the executive said that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decided who would have access to US customer data. 

The reality illustrated by BuzzFeed’s recordings, Baker-White wrote, was “exactly the type of behavior that inspired former president Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app.” Although that proposed ban never materialized, Trump did issue an executive order banning US corporations from doing business with ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, while elected officials struck down the order last summer but also directed the Commerce Department to conduct national-security reviews of apps with links to foreign adversaries, including China. 

On Monday, the Times reported that the Biden administration and TikTok had drafted a preliminary agreement to resolve national security concerns posed by the app. The two sides have “more or less hammered out the foundations of a deal in which TikTok would make changes to its data security and governance without requiring its owner, ByteDance, to sell it,” the Times wrote, adding that the Biden government and TikTok’s owners were “still wrangling over the potential agreement.” According to the Times, US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco has concerns that the terms of the deal are not tough enough on China, and the Treasury Department is skeptical that the proposed agreement can resolve security issues. The Biden administration’s policy toward Beijing, the Times notes, “is not substantially different from the posture of the Trump White House, reflecting a suspicion of China.”

Under the proposed agreement, TikTok would store the data it holds about American users on servers located in the US, and likely run by Oracle, a cloud-computing company based in the US, instead of on servers in Singapore. (In the wake of the June BuzzFeed article, TikTok said this had already been put in place.) An external US entity like Oracle would monitor TikTok’s recommendation algorithms, to ensure that they aren’t suggesting or censoring content in an attempt to influence the American public. (There have been reports in the past that TikTok removed specific kinds of content at the request of the Chinese government, including content related to pro-democracy protests in China.) The agreement would also require  TikTok to appoint a board of American security experts to oversee its operations.

Some critics of TikTok and its influence are unlikely to be satisfied with the agreement, the Times notes. In August, a number of members of Congress sent a letter requesting an intelligence briefing about TikTok’s new “Elections Center,” which the company announced as part of its preparations for the midterm elections. The group said they were concerned that the initiative “could allow the Chinese Communist Party to interfere in US elections and collect sensitive data on US political activity, including voter-registration information,” the National Review reported. In a recent statement to the Times about the preliminary agreement, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that “anything short of a complete separation” from China-based ByteDance “will likely leave significant national security issues regarding operations, data, and algorithms unresolved.” 

While TikTok has attempted to downplay its ties to the Chinese Communist Party, the Review wrote, “ByteDance has collaborated with security bureaus in Xinjiang to cover up Beijing’s mass atrocities targeting minorities, including the Uyghurs.” The members of Congress who requested an intelligence briefing said that, according to an assessment released by the director of national intelligence, “China probably continued long-standing efforts to gather information on American voters and public opinion, political parties, candidates and their staffs and senior government officials during the last election.”

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Not everyone is convinced that TikTok’s owners are trying to influence American attitudes and social mores, or that the app’s data-handling practices are any more of a threat than those of other social media platforms. “Instead of focusing on broader privacy and consumer protection laws, which would affect US platforms like FB,” critics of TikTok “scapegoat and fear monger” over the platform, Taylor Lorenz, a technology columnist for the Washington Post, recently wrote. “It’s an intentional distraction from real, comprehensive data/privacy reform and ppl should see it for what it is.”

Here’s more on TikTok:

  • Hyperventilating: Karl Bode, writing at Techdirt, said that there isn’t much substance to criticisms from people who “hyperventilate about TikTok.” The claim that China is directly controlling TikTok, and that it will use the app to spy on or influence Americans in nefarious ways, is mostly fearmongering, Bode writes. “Actual evidence of TikTok being uniquely dangerous…has been sorely lacking, but that doesn’t stop folks from heading to the fainting couches.” Even if TikTok were to be banned completely, Bode argues, “China could hoover up location, browsing, and behavior data from an ocean of completely unaccountable and hugely shady data brokers and middlemen.”
  • The Wild West: Jem Bartholomew of Columbia’s Tow Center spoke recently with Becca Ricks, a senior researcher at the Mozilla Foundation, whose investigative work highlighted how partisan influencers are evading TikTok’s weak political-ad policies. “What we found doing our investigation is it prompted more questions than answers,” she said. “Sometimes we ourselves were asking the question: Would this violate TikTok’s policies? It raised questions of how do you define violations, how you define political advertising?” Most ad policies at social platforms are equipped to deal with traditional ads, Ricks said, “but a lot of that doesn’t exist for influencer advertising. It’s the Wild West.”
  • Feeling fine: In the UK, TikTok is facing a fine of almost thirty million dollars for failing to protect the privacy of children, according to a report from The Guardian. “An investigation conducted by the Information Commissioner’s Office found the video-sharing app may have breached data protection law between May 2018 and July 2020,” the paper wrote. The ICO issued a “notice of intent,” which is a precursor to handing down a fine. If the fine is twenty-nine million dollars, it would be the largest in the history of the Information Commissioner’s Office, exceeding a record fine of twenty-two million dollars handed to British Airways two years ago after a data-hacking incident in 2018.


Other notable stories:

  • The Vietnamese government is tightening its control over who is allowed to disseminate news on social media, Reuters reports. The rules, which sources said were not finalized but were anticipated by the end of the year, “would establish a legal basis for controlling news dissemination on platforms like Facebook and YouTube.” A source told Reuters the government wants to address what it believes to be “the misleading of users into thinking that social media accounts are authorized news outlets.” 
  • Philippe Vasset, a French journalist, has launched a new weekly publication called Glitz Paris, which calls itself “the first investigative publication dedicated to the global luxury sector.” Vasset told the New York Times that the newsletter will report on stories that “cut through various universes,” such as the connection between luxury watches and arms dealers. Glitz plans to hire fifteen reporters and will be funded by subscriptions. 
  • Fast Company shut down its website on Tuesday after the publication said it was hacked. The hackers sent offensive notifications including racist language to Apple News subscribers. Fast Company said on Twitter that it is investigating what happened, and that its website will be suspended until the issue is resolved. The Verge reported that a message on Fast Company’s site claimed the hackers got access to the site via a password that was shared across many accounts.
  • The proposed Journalism Competition and Preservation Act could benefit far-right publications, The Hill reports. The legislation was intended to help small newspapers by allowing them to negotiate with social platforms to get payment for their news. The Hill says a clause in the bill would prohibit the platforms from discriminating against outlets due to “views expressed by the eligible digital journalism provider’s content,” and publications like Breitbart, NewsMax, and InfoWars could all use this clause to demand their links get featured. CJR wrote about the JCPA here.
  • Reuters reports that a range of advertisers ended advertising campaigns on Twitter after ads appeared alongside tweets soliciting child pornography. “Brands ranging from Walt Disney, NBCUniversal, and Coca-Cola to a children’s hospital were among more than 30 advertisers that appeared on the profile pages of Twitter accounts peddling links to the exploitative material, according to a Reuters review of accounts identified in new research about child sex abuse online from cybersecurity group Ghost Data.”
  • The Independent reports on a new study by SumOfUs, a nonprofit public advocacy group, that alleges that Youtube and Facebook are promoting a disinformation campaign that favors Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro ahead of Brazilian elections on October 2. The platforms “have added rocket fuel to Brazil’s ‘stop the steal’ movement, helping Bolsonaro copy Trump’s playbook to the letter, and causing incalculable damage to Brazilian democracy,” Vicky Wyatt, SumOfUs campaign director, remarked.
  • The Robert R. McCormick Foundation announced that it is providing a total $7.5 million in funding to Block Club Chicago, Capitol News Illinois, Injustice Watch, and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications. In a statement, the foundation said it was committed to “strengthening and scaling impactful reporting in Chicago and Illinois.”
Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.