The administrative director of the US Congress ordered this past Wednesday to stop the TikTok dance with an internal message that is not very open to interpretation: “The employees of the House [de Representantes] They are NOT authorized to download that app on work phones. If it turns out that you already have it downloaded, they will contact you to remove it. Catherine Szpindor cited “security risks” to adopt the measure, admittedly unusual, against a foreign company, and anticipated the entry into force of the ban on using the Chinese-owned video social network on devices owned by the federal government, except for cases in which it serves the security forces for their investigations. The veto is included in the monumental spending package of 1.7 trillion dollars (about 1.6 trillion euros) approved in extremis the week before, before the Capitol closed for Christmas. President Joe Biden signed the law into law on Thursday while on vacation in the Virgin Islands.
There are already at least 19 states, most run by Republicans, that have used those same security concerns to partially block TikTok on their officials’ phones and tablets (Indiana went further, suing the company for offering adult content to kids). And on December 13, Republican Senator Marco Rubio (Florida) introduced a bipartisan bill called the Antisocial CCP Act. The name, as much as it sounds like a joke (it would be, were it not for the passion of US legislators for acronyms) , stands for the Law to Prevent the National Threat of Oppressive Internet Surveillance, Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning of the Chinese Communist Party.
Days before, in an opinion article in The Washington Post Signed with Congressman Mike Gallagher (Wisconsin), Rubio wrote: “The application can track mobile phone locations and collect Internet browsing data, including when users visit unrelated websites.” Both also recalled that, according to a 2017 law, Chinese citizens and companies are obliged to share information with the country’s authorities for reasons of national security. “It is disturbing that TikTok, and by extension the Communist Party, has the ability to take note of every time our teens use their phones. With that appsBeijing can collect sensitive information from government employees, as well as blackmail or spy on millions of our compatriots.
The love-hate story between its owners, the ByteDance parent company, and the United States – with 136.5 million accounts, it is the country in the world that uses the platform the most – is not new, but it has registered a peak of hostility in these weeks. the context of the growing geopolitical dispute between Washington and Beijing. Former President Donald Trump already threatened in the summer of 2020 with banning the social network, which in 2021 surpassed Google in visits and which, in just six years, has simply managed to change the mass culture of this country. Like other numbers of the circus of low passions of his last months in the White House, the thing was left halfway. Upon taking office, Biden put the executive order of his predecessor in a drawer, which gave 45 days for a local firm to take over TikTok in the United States (then, there were plenty of candidates to take such succulent loot).
That was not the sign of a drastic change of course: the new Administration has shown continuity with the previous one in relation to its policy of technological rivalry with the enemy power.
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This has meant that, in practice, the platform has been left in limbo, at the expense of an investigation, underway for more than two years, by the Commission on Foreign Investment (CFIUS are its acronym in English). Belonging to the Treasury Department, it is in charge of monitoring trade agreements with non-US companies. This week the newspaper The Wall Street Journal reported on the pressure within that commission from members of the Pentagon and the Department of Justice to force a sale of the operating part of the company in the United States as the only solution to the security problems that it poses. Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, does not miss an opportunity, for his part, to warn about the dangers of the social network’s recommendation algorithm and its “capacity of influence”.
After learning of Congress’s legislative intentions, Brooke Oberwetter, a spokesperson for TikTok, called the ban a “disappointment” and “a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests.” The company has repeatedly tried to downplay concerns about its handling of private data, claiming that US users’ data is not stored in China, that such information is not shared with the Chinese government, and that its headquarters are actually in China. the Cayman Islands. “The agreement that CFIUS is reviewing will significantly address any security concerns that have been raised at both the federal and state levels,” the statement continued.
Meanwhile, the company, which is especially popular among younger people (it ranks second in teen preferences, behind YouTube, according to the Pew Research Center), invests money in pretending to play by the rules, Even as evidence to the contrary mounts: Last week, an internal investigation found that several ByteDance employees had accessed the data of US journalists. The technology company has had an office in Washington for years. And in the city’s crowded lobbyist jungle, ByteDance has increased its presence at the pace of its growth in the United States: it has gone from investing $370,000 to influence the decisions of lawmakers in 2019 to allocating $4.28 million this year, according to OpenSecrets, a sentinel organization of the relationship between money and power.
Veteran cybersecurity expert Brian Grayek, executive of the specialized company REDW and collaborator in several investigations with the secret services and the FBI, believes that the measure recently adopted in Congress falls short. “It will not stop them from continuing to steal information from the rest of the American people. Some of them could be spouses or relatives of government officials, even having ties to the Army, the military industry, with critical infrastructures or with US intelligence, ”he explains in an email. So he applauds Senator Rubio’s initiative. “As they say: ‘desperate times call for desperate measures.’ It’s about a software purposely created with spurious intentions, which has set the new standard for breaking the rules and corrupting teenagers, meddling in people’s lives and spying on citizens. None of this is conjecture, they are proven facts, ”he considers, before offering“ two arguments ”. “The first: ask 100 TikTok users if they know how the company they gave it to handles their data, how it spies on their movements, their patterns, their browsing history, their locations, among many other things; or if they understand how he manipulates their actions and thoughts at will depending on their age and their country of residence. I reckon maybe two will tell you they know some part of that answer. The second reason is that being a popular app does not make it trustworthy. Hardly anyone wanted to wear seat belts when they were introduced to cars in 1949. Few did after they were made mandatory in 1991. Even today some still don’t wear them, risking fines.”
According to that reasoning, many of its users know that they are in a car driven recklessly at full speed and still prefer not to think about their physical integrity. One of them, Victoria Jameson, “creator of TikTok” with almost 970,000 followers and author of the advice podcast “to grow on the platform” TikTalk Radio, is confident that the company and the US government “will be able to reach an agreement” . In a recent episode, she recommended that her listeners “don’t give in to the negative energy of the moment” and keep uploading videos. Also, that they make sure to save the content before it could disappear “overnight”, as happened in 2016 with Vine, a service of short looping clips (there, the reasons were purely business). For Jameson, “all of this is an unbeatable reminder that creators don’t own their audience.”
Nor are politicians, who, however sensitive they may be to security issues, are aware that TikTok is an unbeatable way to reach potential (and not always easy to mobilize) generation Z voters. The White House has courted to featured influencers to ask them for help in spreading their messages on issues such as the US involvement in the war in Ukraine or Biden’s initiatives to reduce inflation. Perhaps the case that best demonstrated this unexplored power in the last legislatures was that of the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania, John Fetterman. His campaign, during which he suffered a stroke, failed in many ways, but was masterful in its use of social media. He has nearly 242 million followers on TikTok, and was elected to the Senate in one of the closest contests of the election. His last post It’s from November 13.
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