Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the Trump Administration might consider banning TikTok in the United States. The Chinese-owned, video-sharing app has become wildly popular among teens and young adults amid the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020. But fears around national security and user privacy have grown in recent weeks. Just this month, India, TikTok’s second-largest market, banned the app, sighting national security concerns.
Now, the company, which has already hired several Americans to serve as executives in its effort to westernize its image, has also enlisted a small army of Washington lobbyists. At least 35 lobbyists, including one with close ties to President Trump, will try to convince lawmakers that the company’s loyalty is to its valuable market in the United States, and not to the Chinese government.
What’s the Concern?
TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based parent company called ByteDance. Like so many tech companies, ByteDance collects data on its users. It tracks user interests and which ads they respond to. In addition, users voluntarily provide information like their names and birthdays. Together these data points provide revealing information about users.
But the separation between corporations and government is nearly nonexistent in China. Many world leaders fear that the Chinese Communist Party continues to gain valuable data from TikTok users. The Trump Administration has taken a particularly bullish stance. Appearing on Fox News this weekend, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro had some choice words about TikTok’s new chief executive, the former Disney chief Kevin Mayer. Navarro referred to Mayer as an “American puppet,” and promised that the Trump Administration would take “strong action” to protect American privacy.
Then, on Wednesday, Trump chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told reporters that the White House was “looking at the national security risk as it relates to TikTok, WeChat and other [Chinese] apps.”
“I don’t think there’s any self-imposed deadline for action,” Meadows said, “but I think we are looking at weeks, not months.”
Still, TikTok has taken extreme measures to show that it’s an American endeavor and not a Chinese surveillance tool. Since April, the company’s Washington lobbyists have hosted at least 50 meetings with Capitol Hill staffers and lawmakers. Among attendees were members of prominent congressional committees like commerce, judiciary, and intelligence. The aim of many of these meetings has been to prove just how American TikTok’s leadership is. Kevin Mayer, for example, lives in Los Angeles and used to run Disney, the most American of all entertainment brands.
Additionally, lobbyists deny that ByteDance shares any data with the Chinese government. They claim, the app is not even available in China. As for user data, ByteDance maintains that it stores the information in Virginia, with a backup in Singapore.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about TikTok right now,” said Michael Beckerman, vice president and head of US Public Policy. “TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy in the US.”
Still, as tensions mount between the US and China, it is unlikely that the White House will take a TikTok ban off the table. As long as the US has the ability to ban the app, it maintains important leverage over its Chinese adversaries.