After months of threats and negotiation, TikTok’s future lies in uncertainty

January 11, 2021 — by Shaan Sridhar

American lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about the social media app TikTok, worrying that the platform could become a data weapon of the Chinese Communist Party.

Prominent political figures, including President Donald Trump and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), claim TikTok US’s data from hundreds of millions of Americans poses a threat to American national security. If such data were to be accessed by the Chinese government, they say the effects could be drastic.

The Trump administration, which promised to be strict with China, vowed to force TikTok’s U.S. operations to be sold to an American company. But after long negotiations and political uncertainty, the question of whether a sale may happen is still unknown.

Some politicians and national security experts argue the app poses a threat because TikTok collects personal information from all its worldwide users, including age, IP address, browsing history and more, in addition to all the videos made by users. This data, often collected without explicit consent, is even collected while the app isn’t open. 

China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 allows the Chinese government to access any of this data from ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok Global, at will, but TikTok US claims American data is not stored in China and they have not shared any data with the Chinese government.

Sophomore Noor Khan shares politicians’ concerns.

“I’m not comfortable with the idea of TikTok having full access to my information,” Khan said. “As much as I try to limit my time on the app, the reality is that it consumes a fair amount of my time. The fact that my data could be put into the wrong hands frightens me. I have no idea what they know.”

But data weaponization is not the only thing critics are worried about.

According to The Guardian, TikTok Global’s content moderation policies banned criticism of communism and China’s handling of protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Former American TikTok employees also told the Washington Post that TikTok Global pressured them to remove videos that Beijing deemed subversive. Political experts argue this type of internet censorship will hurt democracy and aid the spread of communism and Chinese influence.

President Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 6, giving TikTok Global 45 days before it would be barred from making transactions with any person, property or entity under the jurisdiction of the United States. 

Trump issued a second executive order eight days later, forcing a sale of TikTok US to an American company and giving it 90 days to divest its American assets and data. The second order would have forced TikTok Global to export or destroy data collected from TikTok US by Nov. 12, but the Treasury Department extended that deadline to Dec. 4, which they later told TikTok would not be enforced as talks continued.

Junior Naomi Mallik has mixed feelings about the Trump administration’s executive orders.

“I enjoy [TikTok], but if it isn’t sold to an [American] company, the privacy of millions could be dangerously invaded,” Mallik said. “TikTok could be a threat to privacy; it’s difficult to choose a side.” 

On Sept. 27, judge Carl Nichols blocked portions of the first executive order that banned TikTok from American app stores. A month later, judge Wendy Beetlestone completely blocked the first executive order, preventing the government from removing TikTok from American app stores.

Knowing that the Trump administration’s actions could force a sale of ByteDance began seeking American bidders to buy TikTok US or TikTok Global.

On Sept. 13, ByteDance agreed to sell 12.5 percent of TikTok Global to Oracle and another 7.5 percent to Walmart. ByteDance would retain 80 percent, but said it would divest its shares in an initial public stock offering within a year.

Following the deal, Oracle and ByteDance had a public dispute over the specifics of their agreement. Since then, neither company nor the Trump administration has given much clarity on the status of the deal.

Further complicating the matter is the coming of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. The Biden transition team has signaled it will remain tough on China, but has not yet commented on how it will handle TikTok. Prior to the election, on Sept. 18, Biden said he thought TikTok was “a matter of genuine concern” and he would review the situation carefully.

Despite months of negotiation with bidders, courting the Trump Administration and China, and fighting numerous legal battles, TikTok’s future is still a coin toss. And with an incoming Biden administration and ongoing court cases, it’s unlikely that any clarity will come soon.

“I really enjoy the time I spend during the day on TikTok,” Khan said. “I would prefer more privacy, but it’s not like I want to lose the app. I have hopes the situation will work its way into something like a win-win solution for all.”