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Two more US senators hit out at TikTok over data concerns

By | Published on Monday 20 February 2023


Two more US senators have raised concerns about TikTok and its Chinese parent company Bytedance, and what access the Chinese government has to users and user-data on the video sharing platform. Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Republican Jerry Moran have aired their concerns in a new letter to the Committee On Foreign Investment In The United States.

There has, of course, been lots of concern expressed by politicians in multiple countries regarding claims that the Chinese government has access to TikTok user-data via the app’s China-based headquarters.

And in the US, the CFIUS has been among the entities looking into those concerns, its interest in the matter beginning with an investigation into TikTok’s 2017 acquisition of rival, another Chinese company but with a base in California.

Blumenthal and Moran’s letter cites various media reports about how TikTok’s Chinese HQ has accessed user-data relating to its American users.

Back in December, they say, “Bytedance acknowledged that staff based in China and the United States had spied on the private data of journalists and others in order to identify sources behind articles critical of the company, confirming reporting by Forbes”.

“While TikTok fired employees connected to the incident, according to Forbes, the spying was done by a formal Internal Audit And Risk Control team that was directed by senior executives, including TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew”, they go on.

“At that time, TikTok sought to deflect from these disclosures with false denials and misleading answers – a pattern for Bytedance and TikTok”.

“The incident also occurred while TikTok’s executives had repeatedly promised that Americans’ personal data was secure against such spying, including during testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee On Consumer Protection in October 2021″.

“This bombshell disclosure demonstrates that TikTok and Bytedance cannot be trusted by CFIUS or its tens of millions of users in the United States”, the senators then state.

“In response to these and other credible media reports, Congressional scrutiny, and investigative research about the threat of Chinese spying and malign influence, TikTok has pursued a campaign of diversion and deflection to distract from these serious risks”.

They then reference a Wall Street Journal report that “TikTok’s product development and management continues to be based in China, including its opaque and powerful algorithmic recommendation system. These reports also confirm open source research that found numerous examples of engineers working both on TikTok and its Chinese counterpart, Douyin”.

And not only that, but “concerns about Bytedance’s control over TikTok are further exacerbated by the backgrounds of its staff: one investigation by Forbes found that three hundred current employees at TikTok and Bytedance previously, or in some cases concurrently, worked for Chinese propaganda outlets, such as Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television”.

The senators also express concern regarding the data generated by TikTok’s digital advertising tools and its systems for filtering content. “TikTok has a troubling past history of censoring videos critical of the Chinese government and other authoritarian regimes”, they write.

“It has removed or hidden videos related to Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence, criticism of Vladimir Putin, the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, among other topics”.

With all that in mind, Blumenthal and Moran “urge prompt action by CFIUS to protect consumers and our national security through concluding the investigation underway and imposing strong remedies to separate Bytedance from TikTok’s American users”.

“At a minimum, CFIUS should ensure that executive decision making about the platform is based in the US and fully free from coercive influence from Beijing”, they reckon. “It must also ensure that decisions about, and access to, all personal data, algorithms, and content moderation relating to American users is out of the reach or influence of the Chinese government”.

They then conclude: “We cannot rely on paper promises and unenforced half measures from a company that has abused our trust when our national security is at stake. Thank you for your attention to this important matter”.

The boss of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, is due to face the questions of US Congress members, albeit in the House Of Representatives, at a session of the House Energy And Commerce Committee next month.

It will be interesting to see if anything he says allays any of the ongoing concerns of US politicians regarding TikTok data and practices.