So far, Project Texas has been seen primarily as an exercise in geography, which is well-positioned to address concerns about the Chinese government’s access to Americans’ personal information. But it doesn’t address other ways China could weaponize the platform, such as tweaking TikTok algorithms to increase exposure to divisive content, or setting the platform to seed or promoting disinformation campaigns.
Adam Segal, director of the digital and cyberspace policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, told BuzzFeed News that the Chinese government’s influence over TikTok’s algorithms is a more pressing concern than data mining. “I’ve never seen a good argument that the Chinese can’t get from TikTok data from hundreds of other sources,” he said. But he pointed to examples of the Chinese Communist Party’s use of technology to warp digital discourse, including TikTok’s past censorship of speech harmful to China’s “national honor” and a 2020 attempt by a China-based Zoom employee to disrupt Tiananmen memorial video gatherings. Square Massacre.
Today, TikTok vehemently denies allegations that it censors speech critical of China. And members of TikTok’s trust and safety team, which formulates and enforces content policies for the company, portrayed it as relatively well insulated from ByteDance’s influence. Trust and safety workers have less frequent contact with Beijing than other employees BuzzFeed News spoke to, and employees described clear reporting lines — and described TikTok’s trust and safety practices as being adopted by the US-based tech giant. Nonetheless, the question of the reporting structure looms large: Like other senior TikTok executives, its head of trust and safety reports to TikTok’s CEO, who reports to ByteDance as TikTok’s corporate owner. And until the buck stops with ByteDance, Lewis said, “there’s a ceiling” to how far TikTok can distance itself from the Chinese government.
In the same hearing, Sen. Marsha Blackburn asked Beckerman if ByteDance employees had access to TikTok’s algorithm. Beckerman, who did not directly answer the question, said that US users’ data is kept in the US. Blackburn asked if TikTok has programmers, product developers and data teams working in China. Beckerman confirmed that there are.
Lawmakers outside the US have expressed concern about TikTok’s relationship with China. In June 2020, the Indian government banned TikTok, WeChat and more than 50 other Chinese apps after clashes along the India-China border killed 20 Indian soldiers. India’s regulatory body, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, has accused the apps of “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting” data of Indian users to data centers outside India. In August 2020, Australian intelligence agencies began investigating whether TikTok posed a security threat to the country. In September 2021, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission opened an investigation into how TikTok transfers user data to countries outside the EU.
The similarities between various countries’ regulatory concerns about TikTok and China underscore the potential importance of Project Texas. If it’s successful in the US, the project could serve as a roadmap for TikTok in other jurisdictions (perhaps even India, where it’s banned). It also serves as a model for other big companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google, which face similar concerns from overseas regulators about collecting their citizens’ personal information.
Graham Webster, editor-in-chief of the Stanford-New America DigiChina Project at the Stanford University Cyber Policy Center, sees TikTok as a “guinea pig” for lawmakers’ inherent skepticism about foreign companies collecting data on their citizens. Still, Webster says he’s optimistic, because ByteDance has a huge incentive to make controllers completely comfortable with TikTok.
“This is a company looking for a way to actually work,” he said. “They’ll keep trying until it’s obvious defeat, because the amount of money on the table is enormous.” ●