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Politics The pandemic multiplied TikTok’s audience, and its critics in Washington

15:42  09 july  2020
15:42  09 july  2020 Source:   politico.com

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Coronavirus quarantines catapulted TikTok beyond teens, drawing everyone from 20-somethings to grandmothers onto the Chinese-owned video app. But that’s brought the kind of attention TikTok didn’t want — a bigger, more bipartisan fight in Washington and a face-off with the president himself.

a hand holding a cell phone: TikTok is a Chinese short-form video app that has ballooned in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic. © Imaginechina via AP Images TikTok is a Chinese short-form video app that has ballooned in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic.

The sharpest jab yet came this week, with President Donald Trump saying he is considering banning the app, known for its lighthearted, short-form videos of viral memes and easy-to-learn dance choreography. But Trump’s remark was only the latest in a series of escalating actions against TikTok across the Capitol that have been building throughout the pandemic.

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Late last year, it was mostly Senate Republicans and China hawks pushing a piecemeal effort to crack down on TikTok, warning that Beijing-based parent company ByteDance could funnel user data to the Chinese government under a cybersecurity law there, or censor content China disagrees with on the platform. Children’s advocates had a separate concern: the prevalence of kids on the app. The FTC slapped TikTok with a then record-setting fine in February for violating an online children’s privacy law.

The fears around data gathering, censorship and child safety have ballooned during the Covid-19 crisis, picking up fresh support from both parties, both chambers of Congress and directly from Trump — a government backlash that is hitting TikTok from all sides and increasing the likelihood that its U.S. presence will be reined in.

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“The alarm bells have gone off from a number of different perspectives, in a bipartisan way, and we want to get to the bottom of the problems,” House Energy & Commerce Consumer Protection Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky said in a recent interview.

The pile-on started in May. Over the course of the month, top E&C Republicans wrote their first-ever letter grilling the Chinese giant; Democrats on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded the FTC investigate TikTok (bipartisan senators did the same); and bipartisan legislation to ban TikTok on government devices — companion legislation to a recent Senate bill — was introduced in the House.

“Sarah Cooper and her lip-syncing is awesome, but not on a government computer,” Schakowsky said of a TikTok star who posts videos impersonating the president.

Others who have joined the fight include Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), who said the pandemic put TikTok on her radar. As Covid shutdowns kept people inside and glued to their devices, Kuster said, she began hearing more about TikTok on the news — and then came concerns from constituents and advocacy groups, who filed a complaint calling on the FTC to investigate and sanction TikTok for alleged continued violations of online children’s privacy law. Two weeks later, Kuster and Schakowsky led more than a dozen House Democrats who threw their weight behind those demands in a letter to FTC Chair Joseph Simons.

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“Look, it’s a fun site, it’s very lighthearted, and it appears to be totally innocuous until you think through the ramifications of collecting online, private data from, what is it, 2 billion consumers around the world?” Kuster said. TikTok this spring saw the “best quarter for any app ever,” according to data analytics firm SensorTower. It passed 2 billion downloads globally, with U.S. downloads peaking during March quarantine.

The lawmakers’ expanded efforts have begun to gain traction, even appearing in an early version of the House’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill in an amendment to ban TikTok on some government devices.

That’s not for a lack of TikTok trying for influence. The company has met with nearly 50 congressional offices since April, according to its vice president and head of U.S. public policy Michael Beckerman. He said the discussions have been a “helpful way to directly hear their concerns and address common myths about our company.”

Beckerman emphasized that TikTok stores U.S. user data in the U.S. “We work to minimize data access across regions,” he said. “We have never given any data to the Chinese government — nor would we ever do so if asked.”

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Yet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed Tuesday that the Trump administration is considering banning TikTok in the United States over national security concerns. The Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which monitors foreign acquisitions for potential national security red flags, already has an ongoing review of ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of the app, then known as Musical.ly. China’s National Intelligence Law requires Chinese companies to give the government access to information if needed for intelligence gathering.

A Trump administration official, speaking anonymously to discuss a sensitive issue, said that while discussions are only in the early stages, a ban is under serious consideration by “lawyers across the government” and that the State Department “is very involved.”

And Trump himself said in an interview with Gray Television Tuesday that a TikTok ban is “something we’re looking at,” though his rationale centered not on national security, but on the fact that Covid-19 first appeared in China. “What happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful,” he said. The comments also come a few weeks after TikTok users played an apparent role in the sparse turnout at Trump's late-June rally in Tulsa, Okla.

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Meanwhile, there are signs of a potential formal TikTok investigation to come. The FTC and the Justice Department recently interviewed two of the advocacy organizations that lodged the May complaint with the FTC over TikTok, according to the groups, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy. They accused TikTok of flouting online children’s privacy law as well as the terms of its 2019 settlement with the FTC. TikTok did not respond directly to a query about the allegations, but reiterated that U.S. users under 13 have a limited app experience with additional safeguards.

Although the 3-year-old Chinese startup is a newcomer relative to many of Silicon Valley’s social media platforms, TikTok outpaced them to become the most downloaded, non-game app on the planet for most of 2020, according to SensorTower — beating out Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube. TikTok has, during quarantine, been neck-and-neck only with Zoom. The San Jose, Calif.-based video conferencing app – which has substantial operations in China — has itself drawn heat from Washington for taking action in June against Chinese activists based in Hong Kong and the U.S.

Pompeo stressed Wednesday that the administration is looking at TikTok as part of a broader evaluation of how Chinese firms handle Americans’ data and of potential threats from the Chinese Communist Party.

“This doesn't relate to any one particular business or company, but rather to American national security,” Pompeo said, noting similar concerns about Chinese telecom companies Huawei and ZTE.

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TikTok’s swelling size and broadened U.S. demographic has made efforts for investigations and regulations more urgent, lawmakers, competition experts and privacy advocates say. Hashtags like #momsoftiktok, #dadsoftiktok, #familiesoftiktok, #over30 and #over70club make it clear the app has established a foothold in the U.S. beyond American teens.

“The bigger it gets, the more that the issues around consumer privacy impact Americans of a broader range of ages, so I think all the more urgency,” Kuster said.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — a longtime China hawk who in November called on TikTok to testify at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing about its ties to China, which TikTok declined to do — said TikTok’s record growth during quarantine has made it more pressing to get regulations in place.

“We've got to assume that they will keep many, many of the customers whom they have garnered during this quarter,” Hawley said. “And sure, people will have less time for social media once the country is fully reopened, but I think that’s no reason to say, ‘Oh well, this is a momentary flash in the pan.’ Think of all the information that TikTok has been able to gather from Americans on their phone over the last few months.”

Others cite concern not about data transfer, but of communication limits, via a parent company that critics say has demonstrated a willingness to bow to censorship pressure from Beijing. TikTok has been accused, including by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, of censoring content around the anti-government protests in Hong Kong and other politically divisive issues. TikTok has denied this, but separately announced Monday it would cease operations of the app in Hong Kong.

“Do we want to allow a social media platform to really grow and expand in the United States that has ties with the Chinese government [and] that’s been very upfront about its right to censor speech and shape communications in the U.S. if it is against their national interests?” asked Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, a group that champions stronger antitrust enforcement.

TikTok’s biggest problem is outside its control

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TikTok has insisted that it is not beholden to ByteDance and denied affiliation with Beijing. Such allegations are “patently false,” Beckerman said. “The TikTok app is not available in China and not owned or controlled by any government. The company is led by an American CEO with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy based here in the United States.”

The explosion of Washington scrutiny on TikTok coincides with a major changing of the guard at the helm of the company and an aggressive expansion of its D.C. policy and lobbying efforts — moves aimed at earning trust and reframing the company’s narrative in the U.S.

Former Disney executive Kevin Mayer was named CEO of TikTok in May. Beckerman, the former Internet Association chief, left the tech trade group earlier this year to run TikTok’s D.C. policy shop, which later this year will become the site of one of two TikTok “transparency centers” where lawmakers can see firsthand how the firm handles content moderation decisions. ByteDance recently added Washington lobbying firms American Continental Group and Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas; and the company is spreading its tentacles into the EU policymaking scene.

Hawley warned that the growing D.C. presence is a signal that TikTok is at a key inflection point.

“TikTok could choose to follow the pattern of, say, Google and Facebook, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars hiring teams of lobbyists to try to influence the Capitol and exert influence here, and Google and Facebook have done that to great effect,” Hawley said.

Schakowsky suggested that TikTok’s growth in users and influence will do little to deter Congress from cracking down on issues with the app, noting that “we haven’t really been shy” in taking on Facebook. She declined to discuss communications with the FTC regarding whether an investigation is underway, stating only: “Maybe at some point, we’ll see something more public.”

Nahal Toosi and Leah Nylen contributed to this report.


Video: The US may ban TikTok over privacy concerns (ABC News)

TikTok’s biggest problem is outside its control .
Ultimately, the fate of the ByteDance-owned app belongs to two global superpowersLast week I wrote about some of the forces putting the squeeze on TikTok — and, uncharacteristically for me when I write about TikTok, the course of events did not immediately reverse and put TikTok into a stronger position. Instead, by several measures, the situation for ByteDance’s popular video app got significantly worse.

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