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On Thursday, March 23, 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the US Congress in an attempt to convince the United States that American user data was protected. According to him, TikTok will be kept free from any manipulation by any government, including the Chinese Communist party. 

What is TikTok?

TikTok is an app that allows users to create and share short-form videos. It has 1.7 billion active users in the world, and more than 150 million in the United States (US).

After launching the app Douyin in China in 2016, the Chinese company ByteDance launched TikTok in 2017 targeting the rest of the world. According to the founder of ByteDance, Zhang Yiming, China is home to only one-fifth of Internet users globally. If we don’t expand on a global scale, we are bound to lose to peers eyeing the four-fifths. So, going global is a must.

Issues with TikTok

The app is accused of spying users in the world on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party and having access to user data worldwide. In fact, TikTok collects numerous personal information, even while not being used, such as photos, videos, GPS data… the app even has access to the microphone. Moreover, in June 2022, the media BuzzFeed revealed that ByteDance employees based in China had access to non-public data concerning American users. The company admitted that employees had access to user data from China, as well as other countries such as Israel, Brazil or Japan. The risk could be that the Chinese government could force ByteDance to collect and provide information on the ground of a 2017 law – ordering Chinese citizens to participate in the intelligence of the country. 

Another concern is that the Chinese government could use the app for soft power purposes by using the ‘For You’ algorithm which recommends videos to the users. According to Ted Cruz, Texas Senator, [TikTok] is a Trojan horse that the Chinese Communist Party can use to influence what Americans see, hear and ultimately think’. Therefore, TikTok is seen as a threat to national security. These fears are also expressed by U.S. Congressman Morgan Griffith during the hearing of Shou Zi Chew:  ‘All the countries in the world are saying: it is not a private enterprise, it’s part of the communist party. What do you say sir, Yes or No? Is it part of the Chinese Communist Party as everybody thinks or are you still living in some mystical world?”.

Moreover, in Europe, TikTok is accused of breaching the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). For instance, the French Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL) sanctioned TikTok to pay 5 million euros because users were not clearly informed of the finality of cookies, and they could not easily refuse them. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties also initiated two investigations in September 2021: one regarding the processing of personal data of its underage users, and one examining the legality of its data transfers to China. All those concerns were also highlighted during the US Congress hearing of Shou Zi Chew. 

These are the main reasons why the US Congress is considering banning TikTok on American territory, and why several governments – including the US – have already prohibited the app on government devices such as Canada, Denmark, the United Kingdom as well as the European commission. However, the first country to take drastic measures was India as early as in 2020 with the ban of the app on the whole territory because the company allegedly secretly transmitted users’ data to servers outside the country.

A possible solution: Project Texas

A possible solution for the remaining presence of TikTok on US territory could lie in Project Texas, an agreement between the US government and TikTok that would prevent a national ban of the app. The goal is to protect all US citizen data by storing it on American territory, namely on Oracle’s cloud infrastructure – a software giant which has its headquarters in Texas. However, according to the 2022 BuzzFeed report, Oracle would only provide the ‘bare metal data storage space, while TikTok would control the software and virtual machines it’s hosted on’

During the hearing before Congress, Shou Zi Chew promised to complete the storage and transfer of all American data on US infrastructures by the end of 2023. Nevertheless, lawmakers expressed their concerns regarding the viability of Project Texas : ‘I am concerned that what you’re proposing with Project Texas just doesn’t have the technical capability of providing us the assurances that we need’, said California Republican Jay Obernolte.

Hannah Siegrist

M2 Cyberjustice – Promotion 2022-2023

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