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The Clock is Ticking for TikTok
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The Clock is Ticking for TikTok

U.S. policymakers are getting more assertive in their efforts to rein in the Chinese social media platform.

Happy Wednesday! It’s Woodrow Wilson’s birthday today. If you happen to run into Jonah and he’s in a particularly grumpy mood, that’s probably why.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Supreme Court issued an order on Tuesday temporarily blocking a federal judge’s earlier ruling that would have forced the Biden administration to lift Title 42, a pandemic-era public health measure that allowed border officials to quickly expel migrants without allowing asylum applications otherwise required by law. The stay will remain in effect at least until the Court hears arguments in late February or early March over whether the 19 state attorneys general who sought to keep the policy in place can pursue their challenge to the federal judge’s ruling. Justices Neil Gorsuch, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented from the majority opinion.
  • In an effort to undermine the West’s price cap on Russian oil exports, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on Tuesday banning the sale of oil or petroleum products under contracts that “directly or indirectly provide for the use of the price cap mechanism.” Putin can, however, create exceptions and “grant special permission” to allow certain sales if he so chooses. The price cap—imposed earlier this month—has not yet been tested, with Russia’s main crude blend selling at prices below $60 a barrel. 
  • Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen announced Tuesday that, starting in 2024, the island would extend its compulsory military service for male citizens from four months to one year, raise conscript pay, and develop a more intense training regimen that includes instruction on the use of drones and Javelin anti-tank missiles. The moves come just days after China sent 71 planes and seven ships toward the self-governing island, and Beijing’s increasing aggression played a large role in the changes. “This was an extremely difficult decision, but it is unavoidable for Taiwan’s survival,” Tsai said in a press conference. “As long as Taiwan is strong enough, Taiwan will not become a battlefield.”

Clouds Gather for TikTok’s U.S. Future

(Photo illustration by Thiago Prudêncio / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images.)

Dear Klon “Delete TikTok” Kitchen,

We wish you a very happy holiday season. 

Sincerely, 

Concerned the Chinese-owned video sharing app poses security risks to its some 100 million U.S. users and reluctant to wait for the Biden administration to negotiate a deal to mitigate said security risks, a growing number of state and federal officials have taken steps in recent weeks to restrict the use of TikTok on government devices. From New Hampshire to Utah, governors decided the reward—content like cutesy traffic safety videos from the Department of Transportation—wasn’t worth the risk of data breaches and surveillance. Congress joined in on the fun last week, appending a TikTok ban for executive branch employees to this year’s must-pass omnibus spending bill.

Chinese entrepreneurs Alex Zhu and Louis Yang founded lip sync app Musical.ly in 2014, and it exploded in popularity around the world before Beijing-based ByteDance acquired it in 2017, soon absorbing it into TikTok. But as the U.S.-China relationship grew more adversarial—and as the Chinese Communist Party tightened its grip on Chinese tech companies and honed its big-data driven surveillance and suppression skills—security analysts have increasingly sounded alarms over the app’s China-based ownership.

China’s authoritarian system dictates that Chinese tech companies must turn over user data whenever the CCP asks, leading to fears the Chinese government could surveil the location data and viewing habits of military or intelligence officials, for example, or alter the algorithm to push China-friendly content. “The Chinese government could [control] data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm,” FBI Director Chris Wray warned Congress in November. “[This] could be used for influence operations if they so chose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices.”

Skeptics shoot back that, although China-based employees have accessed U.S. user data, there’s no public evidence—yet—that the CCP has demanded U.S. user data. They’ll also argue a lot of American user data is already for sale, and that plenty of non-Chinese-owned platforms have proven effective vectors of misinformation campaigns. Facebook, for example, has capitalized on security concerns over TikTok to downplay its own aggressive data collection habits.

But although TikTok insists it stores Americans’ data on servers outside China, a steady drumbeat of revelations in recent months hasn’t exactly smoothed security hawks’ ruffled feathers. This summer, Buzzfeed reported that China-based TikTok employees had repeatedly accessed U.S. user data and that former ByteDance employees claimed the company had used its now-defunct news app, TopBuzz, to push pro-China propaganda and censor negative stories. Forbes reported this fall ByteDance had planned to use TikTok to monitor specific U.S. citizens’ locations, and noted that the app allowed unlabeled Chinese state media to share videos criticizing U.S. political candidates ahead of the midterms. Just last week, Forbes and the Financial Times revealed ByteDance had accessed certain journalists’ TikTok data in an effort to track their locations and find out if employees met with the reporters to leak information.

The Trump administration ordered ByteDance to sell its U.S. operations to a U.S.-based company back in 2020, and Walmart and cloud platform company Oracle agreed to buy the business. But ByteDance fought back in court, and the Biden administration ultimately rescinded the Trump administration’s orders. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS)—which reviews international transactions for potential national security threats—has continued investigating TikTok and could order ByteDance to undo the Musical.ly-TikTok merger, kneecapping its U.S. business. In a bid to avoid that outcome, TikTok has upped its D.C. lobbying efforts and been negotiating with CFIUS behind the scenes, apparently striking a deal in recent days to allow Oracle to store American users’ data. To overcome officials’ remaining concerns, ByteDance has reportedly spent $1.5 billion to build U.S.-specific data security and content moderation divisions, laying plans to let Oracle engineers review TikTok’s code at “transparency centers”—the first of which is reportedly scheduled to open in Maryland next month.

Still, any deal that leaves TikTok on U.S. devices may meet opposition: Brendan Carr, a Federal Communications Commission commissioner, told Axios last month anything short of a full ban of the app is insufficient. Such an effort would likely involve blocking U.S.-based companies from advertising or licensing with TikTok or hosting it on their app stores—though those measures could produce First Amendment challenges. Regulators would also probably prevent TikTok from rolling out new app updates in the U.S., though Americans who had already downloaded the app could likely keep using it.

With no deal finalized, lawmakers are growing impatient. Indiana’s attorney general recently sued TikTok, accusing it of insufficient data security and child safety practices. Congress included a TikTok ban for executive branch devices in last week’s omnibus, extending measures already in place at the Pentagon, State Department, Department of Homeland Security, and White House throughout the rest of the administration. Catherine Szpindor, the chief administrative officer of the House of Representatives, brought the issue home to lawmakers yesterday, reportedly ordering members of the House and their staff to remove TikTok from their government-issued phones.

As momentum builds, lawmaker efforts to ban TikTok entirely grow less and less far-fetched. “The Chinese Communist Party and our other adversaries abroad are seeking any advantage they can find against the United States through espionage and mass surveillance,” Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi said in a statement introducing a bill he’d worked on with Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mike Gallagher, both Republicans, that’d do just that. “It is imperative that we do not allow hostile powers to potentially control social media networks that could be easily weaponized against us.”

Gallagher—tapped to lead a House select committee on China starting next year—went further, calling TikTok “digital fentanyl” addicting Americans. “Allowing the app to continue to operate in the U.S. would be like allowing the U.S.S.R. to buy up the New York Times, Washington Post, and major broadcast networks during the Cold War,” he argued, a nod to young people’s increasing use of TikTok as a news source. “No country with even a passing interest in its own security would allow this to happen.”

Worth Your Time

  • Whether you want the Biden administration to keep Title 42 in place or not, it’s really worth reading Justice Neil Gorsuch’s dissent from the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in full. “The only plausible reason for stepping in at this stage that I can discern has to do with the States’ second request,” he writes. “The States contend that they face an immigration crisis at the border and policymakers have failed to agree on adequate measures to address it. The only means left to mitigate the crisis, the States suggest, is an order from this Court directing the federal government to continue its COVID-era Title 42 policies as long as possible—at the very least during the pendency of our review. Today, the Court supplies just such an order. For my part, I do not discount the States’ concerns. Even the federal government acknowledges ‘that the end of the Title 42 orders will likely have disruptive consequences.’ But the current border crisis is not a COVID crisis. And courts should not be in the business of perpetuating administrative edicts designed for one emergency only because elected officials have failed to address a different emergency. We are a court of law, not policymakers of last resort.”
  • In his new memoir, A Heart That Works, comedian Rob Delaney works through the tragic loss of his young son to a brain tumor—from the harrowing diagnosis and the blind rage that followed to the forceful, unstoppable love that remains after his death. “As part of his treatment, [Henry] had to get a tracheostomy—a breathing tube was inserted in the base of his neck and prevented him from talking,” Delaney writes in an excerpt of the book published this week. “After he lost his voice, Henry communicated through Makaton, a language program that uses symbols, signs, and speech to enable communication for people who might otherwise have a tough time being understood. The program is similar to sign language, but it combines hand gestures with spoken words (for those who can speak) and sometimes references to images or objects as well.” The rest of the chapter goes on to detail how Delaney and his son bonded while watching a BBC children’s show designed for Makaton users. “When we found his show, Henry and I didn’t have much longer left together, but Mr. Tumble helped us understand each other in what time we did have,” Delaney writes. “It is fair to say that I love Mr. Tumble. One time, I heard a mom talking about her preferred CBeebies shows, and she said she didn’t like Mr. Tumble. I had to walk away. F— with Mr. Tumble, and you f— with me!”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • All politicians lie. But Rep.-elect George Santos of New York has taken the phenomenon to a whole new level. “The only thing we’re sure of about George Santos is that his name does appear to be George Santos,” Nick writes in his latest Boiling Frogs (🔒). “Is that all the honesty that’s required to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives?”
  • On the site today, John Gustavsson imagines a free-movement zone between the U.S., the U.K., Canada*, Australia, and New Zealand; Kevin Williamson offers a first pass at a “kind of permanent FAQ on gun policy,” and Jonah ponders the terrible year of the new “saddest figure in post-presidential politics,” Donald Trump.

Let Us Know

Do you have TikTok on your phone? Do your kids have it on theirs? Would you (or they) be upset if the government eventually blocked them from using it?

Correction, December 28, 2022: This newsletter was updated to reflect Gustavsson’s inclusion of Canada, not China, in a suggested free-movement zone.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.