So far, Project Texas seems to be primarily an train in geography, one which appears well-positioned to handle issues concerning the Chinese authorities accessing Americans’ private info. But it doesn’t tackle different ways in which China may weaponize the platform, like tweaking TikTookay algorithms to extend publicity to divisive content material, or adjusting the platform to seed or encourage disinformation campaigns.
Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program on the Council on Foreign Relations, instructed BuzzFeed News that the Chinese authorities’s affect on TikTookay’s algorithms is a extra urgent concern than knowledge exfiltration. “I’ve never seen a particularly good argument about what the Chinese could get from TikTok data that they can’t get from hundreds of other sources,” he stated. But he did level to examples of the Chinese Communist Party utilizing expertise to warp digital discourse, together with TikTookay’s earlier censorship of speech dangerous to China’s “national honor,” and a 2020 try by a China-based Zoom worker to disrupt video conferences commemorating the Tiananmen Square bloodbath.
TikTookay vehemently denies accusations that it censors speech essential of China right now. And members of TikTookay’s Trust & Safety group, which makes and enforces content material insurance policies for the corporate, portrayed it as comparatively nicely insulated from ByteDance affect. Employees described Trust & Safety staff as having much less frequent contact with Beijing, and clearer traces of reporting, than different workers that BuzzFeed News spoke to — and described TikTookay’s Trust & Safety practices as just like these adopted by US-based tech giants. Nonetheless, the query of reporting construction looms massive: Like different senior TikTookay officers, its head of Trust & Safety stories to TikTookay’s CEO, who stories to ByteDance as TikTookay’s company proprietor. And so long as the buck stops with ByteDance, “there is a ceiling” to how a lot TikTookay can distance itself from the Chinese authorities, Lewis stated.
US lawmakers have made clear that their issues about TikTookay transcend the place knowledge is saved. In a 2019 tweet, Sen. Chuck Schumer stated that underneath Chinese legislation, TikTookay and ByteDance “can be compelled to cooperate with intelligence work controlled by China’s Communist Party.” At an October 2021 Senate listening to, TikTookay’s Head of Public Policy for the Americas Michael Beckerman testified that TikTookay’s privateness coverage permits it to share the knowledge it collects (together with US consumer knowledge) with ByteDance. He declined to reply questions from Sen. Ted Cruz about whether or not the coverage permits TikTookay to share that knowledge with Beijing ByteDance Technology, one other ByteDance subsidiary that’s partially owned by the Chinese Communist Party.
At the identical listening to, Sen. Marsha Blackburn requested Beckerman whether or not ByteDance workers had entry to TikTookay’s algorithm. Beckerman, indirectly answering the query, stated that US consumer knowledge is stored within the US. Blackburn additionally requested whether or not there are programmers, product builders, and knowledge groups in China engaged on TikTookay. Beckerman confirmed that there are.
Lawmakers past the US have additionally raised issues about TikTookay’s relationship with China. In June 2020, the Indian authorities banned TikTookay, WeChat, and greater than 50 different Chinese apps after a conflict on the India–China border that killed 20 Indian troopers. India’s regulatory physique, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, alleged that the apps have been “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting” Indian consumer knowledge to knowledge facilities outdoors of India. In August 2020, intelligence companies in Australia started investigating whether or not TikTookay poses a safety menace to the nation. In September 2021, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission opened an investigation into how TikTookay transfers consumer knowledge to international locations outdoors the EU.
The similarities between totally different international locations’ regulatory issues about TikTookay and China emphasize the potential significance of Project Texas. If it succeeds within the US, the venture could function a roadmap for TikTookay in different jurisdictions (maybe even in India, the place it has been banned). It can also function a mannequin for different massive corporations, like Amazon, Facebook, and Google, which face related issues from abroad regulators about gathering their residents’ private info.
Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford–New America DigiChina Project on the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center, sees TikTookay as “a guinea pig” for lawmakers’ inherent skepticism about overseas corporations gathering their residents’ knowledge. Still, Webster says he’s optimistic, as a result of ByteDance has a heavy incentive to get regulators absolutely snug with TikTookay.
“This is a company that is looking for a way for this to actually work,” he stated. “They’re going to keep trying until there’s an obvious defeat, because the amount of money on the table is enormous.” ●