Why I’m Still Worried About TikTok

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News came last week that TikTok eclipsed both Google and Facebook as the most visited domain and most downloaded app in the United States. The mainstream media response can be summed up in this piece from CBS, which notes the news, then quotes a TikTok public policy executive. I wish I was making this up, but here’s the quote:

“TikTok is about entertainment and bringing joy,” TikTok’s head of public policy for North America Michael Beckerman told CBS Mornings in October. “You put a premium on authentic content, uplifting content. But like all entertainment, you want to watch with moderation, and we put tools in place, take-a-break video, screen time management, and tools for parents like family pairing to make sure that they can have conversations and do what’s right for their family and their teenagers.”

Sounds great, right? “Bringing joy”! Here comes TikTok, the “happy app” that has learned from all that bad stuff Facebook has had to deal with over the past five years. The story goes on to note that there’s been some “controversy” around the platform, like viral vandalism at schools and other “challenges.” When asked about these issues, “A TikTok representative did not respond to a request for comment.”

But nowhere in that coverage, not at the WSJ, or Cnet, or many others, is the problematic reality of TikTok’s ownership structure noted. Nor is it mentioned that Tik Tok’s parent company, ByteDance, sold a stake – and a board seat – to the Chinese government. Even before that governance story broke (in the fall of 2020), I was expressing my discomfort with what TikTok represents given its perch at the intersection of surveillance capitalism and high-stakes geopolitics. More than two years ago, in “Tik Tok, Tick, Tock….Boom”, I wrote:

  1. China employs a breathtaking model of state-driven surveillance.
  2. The US employs a breathtaking model of capitalist surveillance.

We on the same page so far? OK, great.

Now let’s consider TikTok, which is a robust combination of the two. Don’t know TikTok? Come on, you read Searchblog for God’s sake. Ok, well, fortunately for you, there’s the New York Times. Or…maybe not. I almost threw up in my mouth as I watched the paper of record run through its decades long practice of “Gee, Golly, Isn’t This Shiny New Tech Thing Culturally Significant, and Aren’t We Woke for Noticing It” journalism last weekend.

I then go on to review TikTok’s  Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, which, if you read them closely, offer absolutely no assurances that the data TikTok collects won’t be shared with the Chinese government. I just re-read them, to be sure they hadn’t changed, and nope, it’s all right there in black and white. From the privacy policy:

“We may share all of the information we collect with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group.”

and

“We may disclose any of the information we collect to respond to subpoenas, court orders, legal process, law enforcement requests, legal claims, or government inquiries, and to protect and defend the rights, interests, safety, and security of TikTok Inc., the Platform, our affiliates, users, or the public. We may also share any of the information we collect to enforce any terms applicable to the Platform, to exercise or defend any legal claims, and comply with any applicable law.

Well folks, what “government inquiries” and/or “applicable law” do you think this means, given TikTok is owned by a Chinese company? And let’s just remind ourselves, China takes a very keen interest in its Internet companies. And as the Washington Post reported, just today, “China harvests masses of data on Western targets.

It astonishes me that US-based tech reporting doesn’t at least point out this obvious conflict of interest when covering TikTok’s domination of US internet culture. Yes, the last administration completely mishandled the issue, and perhaps nobody wants to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe Trump was actually right about something (lord knows I cringe just writing that sentence). And yes, sure, TikTok representatives will look anyone who asks directly in the eyes and declare “We do not share information with the Chinese government.” But we already know that our own social media executives have bent the truth repeatedly to the press, to Congress, and to themselves over the past ten years. Are we really going to take TikTok’s word for it?

The Department of Commerce is still working on reports detailing processes for determining whether TikTok and apps like it might be a security threat. This kind of grinding bureaucracy tends to anesthetize ongoing coverage. Meanwhile,  I started checking out TikTok a few months ago. And damn, the product is impossible to look away from. It’s a brain candy rabbit hole, and media companies, including The Recount, have flocked to the platform. But I can’t help thinking we’re making the same mistake we made when we all embraced Facebook a decade ago. Sure, we can assume there’s absolutely no data TikTok could possibly gather from any of us that matters to the CCP. I certainly hope that’s right. But the history of social media has proven that comfortable assumptions are often wrong. I guess we’ll find out…eventually.


This post is something of a longer exploration of one of my annual predictions, #9, posted yesterday.

Why I’m Still Worried About TikTok