After CEO gets grilled, a doomsday clock might be ticking for TikTok | Opinion
Surprise! Our federal government’s feuding factions have finally reached a bipartisan accord on something. No, it’s not anything as mundane as the border crisis or the budget deficit. Instead, it’s a topic that many on both sides of the aisle now say they perceive as a dire threat to our national security: TikTok.
TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew was summoned to Washington last week to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He tried to sell the committee on the idea that even though the global social-media app’s principal base is still in Beijing, it is independent of the Chinese government.
The lawmakers weren’t buying what Chew was selling. As Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, pointed out Sunday on “Face the Nation,” “TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. and by Chinese law that company has to be willing to turn over data to the Communist Party.”
That power has been the main source of the worries in Congress and the White House, and it already has prompted various state and local governments to ban TikTok from their employees’ official phones and government computers.
The apparent concern is that by accessing those devices, the Chinese government could somehow find portals that enabled it to burrow into government databases. Then, if hostilities someday occurred over, say, an attack on Taiwan, China could conceivably paralyze the Pentagon.
Granted, this all sounds far-fetched, but so did the prevailing notion prior to Dec. 7, 1941, that Japan couldn’t possibly sink most of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet in one deadly attack on Pearl Harbor.
Moreover, as several private companies and government agencies discovered when they were infected by malware or ransomware, a single employee’s indiscreet download or click on a malicious link or attachment can cause costly problems.
Although Chew sought to reassure the committee by announcing that TikTok hoped to store Americans’ data behind a firewall somewhere in Texas and is also looking at relocating its headquarters, they didn’t buy that, either.
Obviously the TikTok worry is an avatar for our federal government’s belated awareness of the ways in which China is gaining ground on the United States, not only in military power but also in economic clout.
At present, though, an increase in hostilities could be a huge problem for both countries, which are entangled in a kind of economic interdependence that grew stronger after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization back in 2001.
The U.S. economy would arguably grind to a halt without some of the products — electronics, smart phones, solar panels, batteries, pharmaceuticals — for which China is a major source. The supply-chain issues that occurred during the pandemic are a warning of what could happen in a total rupture of trade relations.
One factor that could at least discourage such a rupture is the fact that, at present, the Chinese economy would also suffer if the United States were to curtail or cease imports from China and/or exports to China, a significant buyer of soybeans, pork and other American farm products.
To some degree, China still needs to sell us things as much as we need to buy them. Moreover, the pandemic’s economic disruptions stirred a discernible bit of discontent in a Chinese middle class increasingly critical of the oppressive rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so this is not an ideal time for a big change.
However, as if to prepare for a future in which China is less reliant on trade with the United States, Beijing has been aggressively cultivating trade relations with other countries, particularly in Africa and Latin America.
As for TikTok, the one sour note in the debate about the app came when Sen. Warner, FBI Director Christopher Wray and others warned that it’s not enough to ban the app from being downloaded onto devices that are government property.
Instead, many of TikTok’s critics seemed to favor a wider ban, even one that forces the app’s 150 million American users to abandon it. Why? Because TikTok might expose its users, especially vulnerable kids, to “disinformation” and “propaganda.”
Excuse me? That’s what dictators did during the Cold War by jamming or blocking citizens’ access to radio services such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and even Radio Marti. The United States, in contrast, never blocked Radio Moscow, whose take on the news was laughable rather than influential.
Granted, TikTok does access its users’ personal information, including data related their past searches. It then sells that information to advertisers, who often bombard the users with ads.
In other words, TikTok’s business model resembles that of other social media providers with whom TikTok competes. No doubt those Silicon Valley giants would be glad to see TikTok totally banned in the United States.
So would some parents, upset by reports about some of TikTok’s “challenges” and other content that is — to borrow a phrase from Florida — “age inappropriate.” Solution for parents: Keep an eye your kids’ usage of all social-media platforms.
However, a total ban would not only deprive thousands of TikTok’s American creators and influencers of income while depriving TikTok’s millions of viewers of their freedom to choose, it also would be a disturbing example of government censorship.
Let’s not start down that slippery slope.