Congress Capitol Building of USA is isolated on white background in Washington DC

The Clock is Ticking for TikTok in the U.S

 

Words by Carmen Macri

 

Our favorite clock app is facing scrutiny within the U.S. Congress — again — and here is everything you need to know.

 

To put it bluntly, the U.S. Government is worried that a Chinese-owned company is accessing sensitive user data and promoting Chinese propaganda to its users. Personally, my For You Page (FYP) is mainly filled with mindless memes and new music—I haven’t come across any Chinese propaganda, but that’s not the main issue here. U.S. officials have repeatedly cautioned that TikTok poses a threat to national security because the Chinese government could potentially spy on Americans or use the platform to covertly influence the U.S. public by controlling what content is seen or not seen.

 

So if I understand correctly, the U.S. doesn’t have any control over what appears on TikTok, and we’ve seen how our government deals with a lack of control over its citizens … not very effectively. This issue has been ongoing since Donald Trump was president. Recently, President Joe Biden signed a bill into law requiring ByteDance to either sell the app to American ownership within nine months (so the U.S. government can control its content and possibly use it for its own “spy balloon”?) or face a permanent ban of the app in the United States.

 

So what does this actually mean for TikTok? 

 

For starters, the app will not automatically delete off your phone, and no, you will not be hunted down and arrested for still having it. The original proposal gave ByteDance a tight deadline of just six months to divest from its U.S. subsidiary. Negotiations stretched this deadline to nine months. On top of that, if the sale is already in progress, the company gets an additional three months to complete it, meaning it would be at least a year before a ban goes into effect. But with the likelihood of court challenges, this could drag on even longer, perhaps for years.

 

TikTok has had some success with court challenges in the past, but it has never tried to prevent federal legislation from going into effect. With over 170 million Americans using the app, it probably won’t just disappear from your phone if a ban does happen. However, it would vanish from Apple and Google’s app stores, making it impossible for new users to download it. This also means TikTok wouldn’t be able to send updates, security patches and bug fixes. Over time, the app would likely become unusable — not to mention a potential “security risk.” Even though, prior to the passage of the law, TikTok invested over $2 billion in an initiative called Project Texas to enhance the protection of U.S. user data from foreign influence. However, lawmakers persisted in pushing forward with legislation regardless… but I digress 

 

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen the U.S. Congress meeting with Shou Zi Chew, chief executive officer of TikTok. In short, the meeting was long and embarrassing. The main takeaway was that not a single U.S. senator seemed to understand how wi-fi works or even where Singapore is. They failed to grasp that TikTok, like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, accesses your camera without controlling the dilation of your pupil size. Despite Chew’s repeated reminders that he is Singaporean and not affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party and that TikTok doesn’t retain facial recognition data, the message didn’t seem to sink in. It was a stark illustration of the gap in technological understanding among lawmakers, leaving many wondering if those responsible for regulating technology truly understand the technology they’re regulating.

 

Allow me to share a portion of this remarkable transcript from the meeting.

 

U.S Representative Buddy Carter: “Specifically, can you tell me, right now, can you say with 100% certainty that TikTok does not use the phone’s camera to determine whether the content that elicits pupil dilation should be amplified by the algorithm?” 

 

Chew: “We do not collect body, face or voice data to identify our users. We do not. The only face data that we collect is when you use the filters, say, that have sunglasses on your face, we need to know where your eyes are.” 

 

Carter: “Why do you need to know where the eyes are if you’re not seeing if the pupils are dilated?” 

 

The conversation then turned to Rep. Carter’s confusion about how TikTok determines users’ ages if it’s not through pupil dilation. Chew simply responded, “We ask them how old they are when they create an account.” While I recognize that the U.S. Congress views TikTok as a national security threat, I can’t help but feel that the greater risk to our national security lies with the lawmakers who lack a basic understanding of technology. It seems they may not even know how to send an email.

 

Anyway, back to business.

 

On May 7, TikTok filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government, seeking to block the ban. The company claims that the bill violates the First Amendment and argues that divestiture is “simply not possible: not commercially, not technologically, not legally,” according to the company’s legal filing.

 

Also from the lawsuit: “For the first time in history, Congress has enacted a law that subjects a single, named speech platform to a permanent, nationwide ban, and bars every American from participating in a unique online community with more than 1 billion people worldwide.”

 

Now, it’s become a battle between potentially breaching the First Amendment and addressing a perceived national security risk (though the validity of this risk is debatable). Unfortunately for TikTok, the odds don’t appear to be in their favor. The law seems resolute and unyielding. While the U.S. government typically upholds the First Amendment, in this case, it seems inclined to prioritize “national security.”

About Carmen Macri

Since a young age, Carmen Macri knew she wanted to be a writer. She started as our student intern and has advanced to Multi-media Journalist/Creative. She graduated from the University of North Florida and quickly found her home with Folio Weekly. She juggles writing, photography and running Folio’s social media accounts.