The Corner

Politics & Policy

Debunking the TikTok Competition Canard

The TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone while on the U.S. flag, November 8, 2019. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

As members of Congress grill major tech executives this afternoon, TikTok and its boosters are using the focus on the tech industry’s anti-competitive practices to say that the app, which has faced scrutiny for its privacy practices, is good for competition. Kevin Mayer, the company’s CEO, made the point in a post on the company’s website today, writing that “TikTok brought successful competition to the marketplace.” He also announced the launch of a Transparency and Accountability Center that would let researchers scrutinize the app’s content moderation practices and the code behind its algorithms.

Will that appease anyone concerned about TikTok’s potential security risk? Probably not. But one important constituency already buys the argument. Tech journalists at some of the country’s most influential media outlets have for weeks argued that the app is no different from its multinational social media competitors. While government officials and privacy experts have warned that China’s invasive data-privacy practices and TikTok’s lack of transparency represent a problem, some writers regularly compare it to U.S.-based companies, concluding that the risk posed by TikTok does not seem much worse than the failings of its competitors. The latest column making this point, by the New York Times’ Kevin Roose, goes a step further, asking, “Instead of banning TikTok, or forcing ByteDance to sell it to Americans, why not make an example of it by turning it into the most transparent, privacy-protecting, ethically governed tech platform in existence?”

The piece centers on this call to regulate TikTok alongside the other Big Tech companies, but he broached the topic of competition in a conversation with a colleague about his Monday column. “It’s Facebook’s only real competitor, and the creative culture on the app would be a shame to lose,” Roose said.

That all might be true, but it needs to be balanced against other concerns, such as ByteDance’s cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party to cover up the mass internment of Uighur Muslims on Douyin, the version of TikTok that it offers in China. While ByteDance is not a state-owned enterprise, it does still operate as any Chinese company is obliged to these days. Since 2017 it has had an internal party committee, and CCP members at the company participate in sessions where they study Xi Jinping’s speeches and other facets of party ideology. Even conceding the point that other social-media companies should face more stringent regulation, new data-privacy standards will not change ByteDance’s allegiance to Beijing. As Roose admits, TikTok’s handling of user data is opaque at best — something that, due to ByteDance’s CCP ties, might not change too much, even with Mayer’s transparency assurances.

The column also warns that moving against TikTok could harm American democracy:

And since banning every Chinese-owned tech company from operating in America wouldn’t be possible without erecting our own version of China’s Great Firewall — a drastic step that would raise concerns about censorship and authoritarian control — we need to figure out a way for Chinese apps and American democracy to coexist.

While this does not exactly reprise the canard that a TikTok ban would be xenophobic, which has been advanced by some of his counterparts at other publications, the notion that such a move could constitute authoritarianism lacks any sort of support. Last spring, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States forced the Chinese owners of Grindr, the gay-dating app, to sell to their controlling stake in the company over data privacy concerns. No doubt, the user privacy concerns implicated by Grindr were more sensitive than the risk posed by TikTok, but the comparison with Grindr is only to show that the U.S. government’s emergency economic powers here can be wielded legitimately. Foreign agents are already required to register with the government, and the principle that individuals and entities with close ties to foreign powers should be treated differently is not new. Subjecting them to a different set of rules is not the same as censorship.

In this sense, the debate about TikTok should not “really be a debate about how all of the big tech companies that entertain, inform and influence billions of people should operate,” as Roose writes. The app’s owner is a Chinese company beholden to the CCP’s dictates, and this consideration should come first. Don’t take it from me. Here’s Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, responding to a reporter’s question about the conversation about Banning TikTok:

With regard to TikTok, the U.S. Senators’ smears are just baseless. The Chinese government always asks Chinese companies to comply with laws and regulations when conducting economic cooperation with foreign countries. We urge certain people in the U.S. to take a fair and unbiased view on this matter, stop using state power to oppress Chinese companies, and do things conducive to China–U.S. relations instead of going the other way.

As long as Beijing views TikTok as a Chinese company, this debate remains one primarily about national security, not competition or regulating U.S.-based tech giants.

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