TikTok, one of Generation Z’s favorite social media apps, is once again in hot water. The most recent controversy started in mid-June, when BuzzFeed News reported that China-based employees of ByteDance, the video platform’s parent company, “have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users” as recently as January. BuzzFeed’s story shows TikTok deserves continued scrutiny. But singular focus on TikTok’s data practices should not obscure concerns about the Chinese government influencing TikTok’s content or overshadow the urgent need for comprehensive national policies on data privacy and foreign software.
TikTok has been working to strengthen its data security, particularly after the Trump administration tried to bar it from U.S. app stores and with continued review by the Biden administration. Most notably, TikTok has undertaken an effort called Project Texas that aims to route all U.S. user traffic through data centers owned by Oracle, an American cloud services provider. BuzzFeed’s reporting, based on leaked internal meetings concerning Project Texas, underscores the challenges TikTok faces as it tries to fulfill its promises to the U.S. government. In response to calls from mostly Republican politicians for an investigation into its operations, TikTok seems to be asking skeptics to cut it some slack. In a June 30 letter to lawmakers, TikTok argued BuzzFeed’s story shows the company is making progress on Project Texas, while not denying that U.S. user data is still accessible in China. TikTok frequently pleads for public trust, something that can come only after it fully cuts off Chinese access to U.S. user data.
There are other concerns beyond data security. For one, it’s unclear to what extent TikTok’s powerful algorithm is or could be influenced by Chinese government interests. When asked at the beginning of July about the algorithm and its potential to influence U.S. politics, TikTok executive Michael Beckerman downplayed the app as “not the go-to place for politics.” The abundance of political TikTok content, including from American abortion activists and Chinese propagandists, makes Mr. Beckerman’s nonchalance deeply troubling.
Though TikTok has work to do, U.S. legislators and regulators also need to act. Part of TikTok’s difficulty in protecting U.S. user data centers on the fact that there’s no standard of what defines U.S. user data, never mind substantive data privacy legislation. President Biden directed the Commerce Department over a year ago to develop new regulations on apps that could be exploited by “foreign adversaries,” but it still hasn’t set a timeline for when those rules will be finalized. The country needs policies that address a broad range of foreign software concerns, including data privacy, censorship and disinformation. Without clear directives, TikTok and apps like it will continue to operate by their own rules, making changes only when fearing scrutiny.
As one TikTok trend might say: We need an American Girl doll who understands the multipronged risks of foreign software. We urgently need U.S. policies that do, too.