TikTok’s ticking clock
“TikTok is a big part of my day: I eat when I get home and while eating I scroll through TikTok. At my desk, I use TikTok before I start homework. If there is too much work, I’ll take breaks and go on TikTok. Finally, after I get ready for bed, I’ll go on TikTok for a bit, then sleep. My average screen time on TikTok is 18 hours a week,” said CVHS sophomore Matthew Aguas.
TikTok is a video-sharing app owned by the private Chinese company ByteDance. The main concerns with TikTok stem from its relations with the Chinese government, especially after Bytedance admitted that a few employees tracked the location of American journalists who criticized the company, and China’s 2017 National Security Law that required “all organizations and citizens shall support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts in accordance with the law, and shall protect national intelligence work secrets they are aware of.” The law also authorized the use of means necessary to carry out intelligence efforts both domestically and abroad. Congress is not only concerned with China using TikTok to spy on Americans but also the manipulation of its users through its content recommendation system. TikTok has over 150 million American users, with 25 percent of its users aged 10 through 19 and the average user spending 1.5 hours per day on the app. As a result, Congress has made lots of efforts to address TikTok and cybersecurity like introducing various bills, but none have become law as of May 2023.
On Dec. 13, 2022, Senator Marco Rubio introduced the ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act. The bill would block social media companies from a “country of concern” such as China, Russia, Iran, and a few others.
“This isn’t about creative videos—this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day. We know it’s used to manipulate feeds and influence elections. We know it answers to the People’s Republic of China. There is no more time to waste on meaningless negotiations with a CCP-puppet company,” claimed Senator Rubio.
“I don’t exactly agree with the reasoning because first off, it’s a very bold claim without evidence (that I know of). Secondly, we use a phone that was likely made in China so there are probably easier ways for China to spy on Americans even if they are made by American companies. Thirdly, I think it’s also safe to assume that many other American social media companies could also possibly gain information and threaten privacy but because it’s American, it’s not a problem,” said CVHS senior Owen Roura.
On Jan. 25, 2023, the No TikTok on United States Devices Act was introduced by Senator Josh Hawley. The bill imposed a nationwide ban on TikTok, and similarly to the ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act, people that continue to violate the law can face criminal penalties of a fine up to $1,000,000 and 20 years in prison. One month later, the DATA Act was introduced and would require federal action to protect the transfer of “sensitive data” to foreign adversaries, with an emphasis on China.
“I think it has the right idea, but it would be better if there was a bill passed that could investigate TikTok and other social media companies instead. I think it would be more fair than just saying it’s owned by a company in a communist country so it’s not safe, which I think is untrue… It’s a social media app, meant to share civilian content with each other, not the government. Even if TikTok does take private info, I don’t think a lot of people would care,” stated Roura.
The most prominent bill is the RESTRICT Act. Introduced on March 7, 2023, it authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, and mitigate” covered transactions. Covered transactions means “any acquisition, importation, transfer, installation, dealing in, or use of any information and communications technology product or service” in which a foreign adversary—which can be any country “determined by the Secretary”— is interested in. Simply put, the RESTRICT Act gives the government the ability to monitor information technology relating to foreign entities that threaten national security. When the bill was introduced, however, it received lots of backlash in concerns with censorship, the potential for criminalization of ordinary people, and its broad applicability.
“The RESTRICT Act concerns me because too much of our freedom can be limited. The bill should be more specific so it is clear for people what they can and can’t do. Without being specific, people may engage in activities that are suddenly punishable,” stated Aquas. “What happens to people using VPNs or a Chinese-owned company’s website like Temu?”
To address these fears, Senator Mark Warner’s (sponsor of the bill) communications director, Rachel Cohen, said, “Under the terms of the bill, someone must be engaged in ‘sabotage or subversion’ of American communications technology products and services, creating ‘catastrophic effects’ on U.S. critical infrastructure, or ‘interfering in, or altering the result’ of a federal election, in order to be eligible for any kind of criminal penalty … this legislation is aimed squarely at companies like Kaspersky, Huawei, and TikTok that create systemic risks to the United States’ national security—not at individual users.”
On March 23, 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce with the committee chair saying, “ByteDance-owned TikTok has knowingly allowed the ability for the CCP to access American user data. Americans deserve to know how these actions impact their privacy and data security, as well as what actions TikTok is taking to keep our kids safe from online and offline harms.”
During the five hours of testimony, Chew argued that TikTok did not have connections with the CCP and was actively trying to protect the data of its American users, citing Project Texas, a plan they developed with the government officials under the pretext of “storing American data on American soil, by an American company, looked after by American personnel.” Chew admitted, however, that because Project Texas has not been fully implemented, China still has access to TikTok’s data. Throughout the testimony, Congress attacked not only the plausibility and security of Project Texas, but also TikTok’s harmfulness and manipulation of its users. Representative Kathy Castor said that Congress needs to protect Americans from TikTok’s “addictive algorithmic operations that serve up harmful content and have a corrosive effect on our kids’ mental and physical well-being.”
“TikTok’s effect on our kids isn’t a TikTok problem as much as it is a parenting problem. You can’t give your kids unrestricted access to social media and then blame it for what it does to them,” said a CVHS parent.
Overall, the testimony was largely unsuccessful in convincing Congress otherwise, and there is still bipartisan support for banning TikTok, with the White House even announcing its support for the RESTRICT Act. The bill faces lots of pushback, but a general ban on TikTok would be very challenging considering its violation of the First Amendment.
“That legislation [RESTRICT Act] has very broad grants of government power that could prove quite harmful to free speech and could extend far, far beyond just TikTok,” said Senator Ted Cruz.
“Personally, I use it [TikTok] frequently to keep my mind free from stress because a lot of people share their content on the app. I don’t think a ban on the app overall is a great idea,” said Roura.
“TikTok can be useful in spreading info or passing time, but it is also very addictive and a distraction…Getting rid of TikTok will open time to be more productive and build useful skills. Still, I don’t agree with the reason for the push for banning the app. I don’t really care if China has info about me as long as they can’t steal my identity. It wouldn’t matter because my life isn’t influential enough to use the info against me,” said freshman Alyssa Evangelista.
“To all the teenagers out there and the TikTok influencers who think we’re just old and out of touch and don’t know what we’re talking about trying to take away your favorite app: You may not care that your data is being accessed now, but there will be one day when you do care about it…They can choose what you see and how you see it. They can make you believe things that are not true. They can encourage you to engage in behavior that will destroy your life… At any moment, they can demand all of TikTok’s data be used to design an A.I. algorithm with the sole purpose of promoting Chinese interests and destroying our society from within,” warned Representative Daniel Crenshaw.