Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Shou Zi Chew wants to dismantle the idea that TikTok is a Chinese app

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When TikTok chief Shou Zi Chew testifies at the US Congress tomorrow (Mar. 23), he will try to dismantle any and all notions about the app sharing US user data with the Chinese government.

At a time when lawmakers are rallying to ban the video-sharing app nationwide—several K-12 schools, universities, and federal agencies have already done so—Chew will take the congressional stand to make a case for why a ban is unnecessary.

“TikTok has never shared, or received a request to share, US user data with the Chinese government. Nor would TikTok honor such a request if one were ever made,” Chew will say, according to written testimony posted yesterday (Mar. 21) by the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

Chew will emphasize that TikTok is “a US company incorporated in the United States…subject to the laws of the United States.” Chew will note TikTok’s headquarters are in Los Angeles and Singapore, and most of the executive team is based there. The app is not available in mainland China. (China’s version of TikTok is called Duoyin, which is only available in China.)

One big number: TikTok’s US users

150 million: People in the US that use TikTok on a monthly basis, with the average user today being an adult well past college age, according to Chew. US users represent 10% of TikTok’s global community, but their content accounts for 25% of the total views around the world.

A brief summary of the agenda for Chew’s hearing

On Jan. 30, House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers announced that Chew would be grilled on…

🛡️ TikTok’s consumer privacy and data security practices

🧒 The platforms’ impact on kids

🇨🇳 TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party

In his testimony, Chew is expected to address all these concerns, saying that the platform will “keep safety—particularly for teenagers—a top priority” and “firewall protected US user data from unauthorized foreign access,” and resist manipulation by any government. Lastly, for accountability, Chew promises the platform will “be transparent and give access to third-party independent monitors.”

If not TikTok, is ByteDance a national security threat for the US?

Calls to ban the app have often pointed to TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, which was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs and is one of the biggest internet companies in the country.

Chew will argue, though, that ByteDance is “a privately-held global company.” Bytedance is 60% owned by global institutional investors (such as Blackrock, General Atlantic, and Sequoia), approximately 20% owned by the company’s founders, and approximately 20% owned by its employees, “including thousands of Americans.”

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” he will say.

US user data TikTok collects, as per Chew’s testimony

Key: always (✅), sometimes (💁‍♀️), and never (⛔)

✅ Date of birth

✅ Username

💁‍♀️ Phone number

💁‍♀️ Email address

⛔ Real names during registration

⛔ Employment

⛔ Relationship status

⛔ Precise or approximate GPS information

A non-exhaustive timeline of the US’s tussle with TikTok

July 2020: The Trump administration moves to ban TikTok

Aug. 2020: Trump signs an executive order barring transactions between US citizens and TikTok within 45 days, and another instructing TikTok to sell all US assets within 90 days.

Oct. and Dec. 2020: Federal judges in Pennsylvania and Washington block the ban.

June 2022: A BuzzFeed report reveals US TikTok user data was repeatedly accessed by ByteDance employees in China. Simultaneously, TikTok starts migrating all US user traffic to Oracle’s cloud servers.

July 2022: Leaders of the US Senate Intelligence Committee ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether TikTok deceived the public about Chinese employees’ access to American user data. Later, Bloomberg reports the Chinese government requested TikTok host stealth propaganda accounts.

Aug. 2022: A Forbes analysis of TikTok and ByteDance employees’ LinkedIn profiles shows 300 current ones previously worked for Chinese state media publications.

Oct. 2022: A Forbes report says that ByteDance intended to surveil American citizens’ locations via TikTok.The company denies these claims.

Dec. 2022: Congress votes to bar federal employees from using TikTok on government-owned devices.

Feb. 2023: The White House gives government agencies 30 days to purge TikTok from all federal devices.

March 2023: New legislation that empowers the secretary of Commerce to take restrictive action against tech firms based in six foreign adversary nations—Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and China—is endorsed by the White House.

Company of interest: Oracle

In July 2022, TikTok rolled out its “Project Texas” initiative, which had been in development and under wraps for two years prior. It addresses data security, works to protect influence over content, and vets that there are no backdoors into the app. The company has spent $1.5 billion on the program that has over 1,500 people working on it.

The biggest move made as part of this corporate restructuring plan is that TikTok partnered with Oracle to route all US user data through Oracle’s cloud infrastructure—and 100% of it is. TikTok this month started to delete historical US user protected data in data centers in Virginia and Singapore—a process expected to be completed later this year.

Moreover, Oracle “has already begun inspecting TikTok’s source code and will have unprecedented access to the related algorithms and data models,” Chew will inform the lawmakers.

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