TikTok is the fastest growing social media app in the world with an astonishing 1.5 billion downloads. While the app has taken the western world by storm, you may be surprised to know that it is owned by ByteDance, a well-known Chinese technology company that has been acquiring and developing several similar platforms. Many Chinese-built technologies have faced concerns over censorship, data collections, and suspicious privacy agreements. Even though TikTok is adamant that it shares no data with Chinese intelligence services, evidence, such as the 2019 lawsuit, shows that its statement should not be trusted.
Since Tiktok is a Chinese-owned company, it is required to function under Chinese law, prioritize China’s police requests and turn over data as requested. Article 7 of the 2017 National Intelligence Law of China states, “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with the law”. It also stipulates that “the state protects any individual and organization that aids it.” This requirement is not optional. Chinese companies, organizations, and individuals are obliged to comply when it comes to providing assistance to the oppressive regime under which they operate. TikTok’s CEO, Alex Zhu, has gone on the record stating that TikTok would not turn over or remove content from its platform even if requested by the Chinese government. However, TikTok’s recent actions prove that this is not the case when it comes to moderating content.
China’s tech companies are unfortunately tangled in these repressive policies administrated by the Communist Party. Byte Dance has a Chinese version of TikTok available in mainland China called Douyin. The South China Morning Post recently reported that political content created by individual users on Douyin’s platform is “virtually non-existent”. However, 5,700 Chinese government agencies and Communist Party organizations contributed to over 250,000 videos which lead us to conclude that Douyin is nothing more than another propaganda tool. Douyin has more than 320 million daily active users which makes it an incredibly powerful platform to control what content can be created and viewed in China.
Recent searches for Hong Kong on TikTok reveal an alternate reality from what is currently taking place. While Twitter and other large non-Chinese social media platforms are flooded with videos and posts of the protest, Chinese owned platforms are suspiciously quiet. The Washington Post reported last fall that organized Chinese campaigns to smear Hong Kong protesters are evidence that China could be using ByteDance to influence global perceptions of its government.
China perfecting its dystopic surveillance state should be a big concern to citizens around the globe. We know that China is powerful and has a global reach. The country is also known for being skilled at playing the long game. It is speculated that China’s next big global export will be mass surveillance. David Carrol, the data rights expert that filed the lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica in 2017, recently wrote: “then again, people may not care if the Chinese Communist Party is mining their TikTok user data. But it’s that usual “I have nothing to hide” attitude that ends up breeding more authoritarianism.”
We recommend not falling for its trap deleting TikTok if you have not done so already. Privacy is being traded for dopamine hits from addictive platforms such as TikTok. It is time to turn the narrative around and demand greater ownership of your personal data. Privacy provides a barrier from abuse of power and developing an identity that is not subject to surveillance. Do not take it for granted.