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Crunch time for TikTok in the US

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The end-game is finally coming into sight in TikTok’s long-running attempt to escape being banned in the US. To judge by the recent resurgence of warnings in Washington about the security risks posed by the Chinese-owned video app, it is going to be a bumpy ride.

It is nearly two-and-a-half years since then president Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban TikTok. Plenty has happened since then, both in politics and in US/China tech relations, to change the landscape on which this battle has been fought.

A court blocked the White House order, and Trump himself is long gone. The US has moved on other fronts, most obviously with its actions against Huawei and a recent effort to thwart China’s ability to buy or make high-end chips. China, meanwhile, has cracked down on its own tech giants, leaving the clear impression they are now beholden to Beijing.

Through it all, TikTok has gone from strength to strength as its influence in the social media world has grown.

Yet in the US, it remains in limbo. The company’s protestations that it is free of Chinese influence and control, despite its ownership by Chinese internet company ByteDance, have fallen on deaf ears in Washington. 

Recent events suggest that opposition is gathering force. This week, Marco Rubio, the most senior Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, was one of the sponsors of a proposed law to ban the social media app. Meanwhile, the US Senate unanimously voted to bar federal workers from downloading it on their work phones.

These moves came a month after FBI director Christopher Wray appeared before Congress to warn of what he described as national security risks from allowing TikTok’s continued operation in the US.

The flurry of opposition represents a shot across the bows of the White House, which has been edging towards a deal that would allow TikTok to continue operating, subject to new restrictions. The Biden administration has left it to the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to thrash out the terms under which TikTok can continue in the US. But this week’s political backlash shows that, as it closes in on a deal, it faces an uphill battle to convince critics.

One concern has been the risk that Americans’ personal data will leak to China. On the one hand, it has been easy to dismiss the information TikTok collects as beneath the interest of a foreign government: After all, who cares if Beijing knows you’ve been watching videos of dancing teenagers? Also, a lack of federal privacy rules in the US means that plenty of personal information about US citizens is already widely available through data brokers, who are perfectly free to sell to foreign buyers.

Yet TikTok still has a vast trove of potentially valuable information, including location and device data. Its growing influence will only add to the amount of information it collects in future. The company has proposed ways of walling off this data in facilities that can be accessed only by employees in the US, in order to prevent it leaking to China. But it will be hard to convince US politicians that the company’s Chinese ownership will not leave it exposed to pressure from Beijing that overrides any deal with Washington.

A second concern surrounds the potential for TikTok’s recommendation algorithm to be used to manipulate content being shown to Americans — making it, as FBI director Wray put it, a potential tool of foreign influence operations.

TikTok isn’t the only social media app to attract attention. There have been calls in Washington for a review of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover on national security grounds, given the backing the deal has received from Saudi Arabian prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

TikTok says that decisions about algorithmic promotion of content are taken in the US, free of influence from China. Proving this is the case will be a challenge. An audit of the company’s recommendation algorithm might provide some reassure. That still leaves open many questions, among them: Who would conduct the audit, how effectively could it identify outside influence, and what level of transparency would be needed to reassure observers, without giving away TikTok’s valuable intellectual property?

Answers are likely soon. But as the rising anxiety in Washington shows, any arrangement that keeps TikTok in business in the US is likely to provoke a political fight.

richard.waters@ft.com

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