I got permission to share this with Digiday for a report coming out soon, so I wanted to share with you all as well: The Interface now has more than 20,000 subscribers, with a shocking percentage of you returning to read the newsletter each day. Thanks for tuning in!
For starters, Peter Navarro, an adviser to the president, said in an interview with Fox News on Sunday that he expects President Trump will take “strong action” against TikTok
and a fellow Chinese-made social app, WeChat. Worse from ByteDance’s perspective is that Navarro said the United States will not back down even if TikTok is sold to an American buyer. Here’s Bloomberg:
The Trump administration is “just getting started” with the two apps, and he would not rule out the US banning them, Navarro said on Fox News on Sunday. Even if TikTok is sold to an American buyer, it would not solve the problem, he said.
“If TikTok separates as an American company, that doesn’t help us,” Navarro said. “Because it’s going to be worse – we’re going to have to give China billions of dollars for the privilege of having TikTok operate on US soil.”
At the root of this concern is that no matter what ByteDance says about TikTok’s independence from Chinese governance, ultimately it must do whatever the country’s brutal, repressive authoritarian regime demands. Russell Brandom examined American anxieties about the app in The Verge
For experts, the concern is less about mass data collection and more about targeted operations that are harder to detect. Because TikTok maintains the standard level of invasive app access, the Chinese intelligence services could potentially use it as a portal to surveil specific users or gather compromising information. The FBI has already raised the alarm
about Chinese spies stealing US trade secrets, so that same access is even scarier for Amazon or Wells Fargo, which might plausibly have proprietary tech that China wants to steal. As long as the Chinese government can put pressure on TikTok through its ownership, there will be ways to snoop on users without raising alarms. That makes it hard for high-risk users to feel entirely safe, no matter what the app does.
Anxiety over foreign interference has reared its head before. As recently as April, Zoom was caught rerouting external video calls through China
, a behavior far more serious than anything we’ve seen from TikTok. Equifax lost data from more than 100 million people
(possibly working for Russia, depending on who you believe), which is certainly more information than TikTok has ever had access to. But there’s something about TikTok’s ownership entanglement that makes it harder to forgive. Even if Zoom was careless or Equifax was outmatched, there’s a belief that they’re still fighting on the right side. But political pressure can’t be fixed with security audits. If you believe TikTok is collaborating with Chinese intelligence services, there’s simply nothing the company can do to reassure you.
The other fear is that China will influence ByteDance, either directly indirectly, to push a worldview that embraces censorship and political oppression on America and the world at large. This is not an abstract fear — we have already seen it happen with content related to the NBA and Hong Kong, as Ben Thompson documented last year
. (TikTok says NBA content may not have appeared in those searches due to issues with language and localization, but were not actively removed from the platform.) And censorship on the app still appears to reflect a Chinese worldview far more than it reflects an American one; only recently did the app’s censors begin allowing people with large tattoos
, and what the company said was a bug temporarily hid content related to Black Lives Matter
. (The content was visible but a bug made the view count appear to be zero.) It’s not a stretch to imagine Beijing eventually using TikTok to distribute propaganda — and without leaving any fingerprints, either.
What sort of data? Well, more researchers have been looking into that. At the Washington Post
, Geoffrey Fowler asked Patrick Jackson of privacy company Disconnect to take a look
. “TikTok doesn’t appear to grab any more personal information than Facebook,” Fowler writes. “That’s still an appalling amount of data to mine about the lives of Americans. But there’s scant evidence that TikTok is sharing our data with China.” He goes on:
Jackson, from Disconnect, said the app sends an “abnormal” amount of information from devices to its computers. When he opened TikTok, he found approximately 210 network requests in the first nine seconds, totaling over 500 kilobytes of data sent from the app to the Internet. (That’s equivalent to half a megabyte, or 125 pages of typed data.) Much of it was information about the phone (like screen resolution and the Apple advertising identifier) that could be used to “fingerprint
” your device even when you’re not logged in.
And there is a hole in our ability to verify all of what TikTok does. Jackson said the app uses some technical measures to encode its activity, meaning some of it is hidden from independent researchers looking under the covers. “In order to disrupt hackers and those who wish to manipulate the app, we use obfuscation to help reduce automated attacks, like bots,” [a spokeswoman] said.
Which basically leaves us back where we started: with no evidence TikTok is doing anything extraordinarily shady with our data, and no evidence it could stop the Chinese government from forcing it to at any point.
Perhaps realizing that the app may be caught up in an intractable conflict between global superpowers, TikTok stars have begun to panic. In the New York Times
, Taylor Lorenz finds young people worried about losing a key outlet for creative freedom during months of quarantine — and also, for some number of them, their livelihoods
Influencers who watched the fall of Vine, another popular short-form video app, in 2016 learned the importance of diversifying one’s audience across platforms. But even for TikTok’s biggest stars, moving an audience from one platform to another is a huge undertaking.
“I have 7 million followers on TikTok, but it doesn’t translate to every platform,” said Nick Austin, 20. “I only have 3 million on Instagram and 500,000 on YouTube. No matter what it’s going to be hard to transfer all the people I have on TikTok.”
And that, of course, has been TikTok’s problem all along.
Facebook is considering a ban on political ads in the days leading up to the US election
, Kurt Wagner reports at Bloomberg. In some quarters, this was received as a capitulation to vocal calls for the company to ban political ads altogether. In my view, it’s less a full-scale retreat than a reasonable balancing of equities. Politicians get access to Facebook’s ad platform for the vast majority of the campaign — and for the most part, their lies will still not be subject to fact-checking.
But in the waning days of the campaign, candidates will have to turn elsewhere for paid promotion. That reduces the chances that a particularly vile ad goes massively viral before it can be removed, or before the free press can fact-check it and distribute any articles intended to debunk it.
It may also make life harder for challengers against well known incumbents, who could have used the final promotional push that Facebook ads provide. (Democrats and Republicans have been equally concerned about this outcome in the past.)
At the same time, they’ll still be able to post on their own pages where it seems to me they will be at just as great a risk of saying something terrible as they would in an ad. And those posts might get even wider distribution than their ads, if history is any guide.
By this point, I’m more or less persuaded that an ad blackout in the days before the election — of the sort that is already common in Australia
— is the right thing to do. But I remain unconvinced it will make any significant difference in the basic logic of campaigning.