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Tiktok and Regulating Social Networks

BLOG - 9 June 2020

TikTok has become one of the most popular social networks in the world. This once again raises the thorny question of how to regulate online communication platforms. Operated by the Chinese giant ByteDance, TikTok emerged from the merger between Musical.ly, a 2017 strategic acquisition by Bytedance that aimed at penetration of foreign markets outside China, and Douyin, the domestic Chinese equivalent. From June onwards, Tiktok will be headed by Kevin Mayer, previously Director of Strategy at Disney (amongst other positions at Disney). The presence of an American citizen at the head of the platform speaks volumes about the ambition of a company that Western governments are wary of.

TikTok allows users to upload short videos online and share them with edits or comments. In the last three months, the application has been downloaded more than 100 million times every month, far surpassing the approximately 50 million downloads for Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp respectively.

As with every new popular social network on their rise, TikTok mainly attracts younger generations. In the United States, 60% of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly users are between 16 and 24 years old according to the social network. In France, the app mainly attracts younger people. According to a study produced by Institut Montaigne, Internet: le péril jeune?, TikTok is used by 11% of 11 to 20 year olds. This figure is still far behind that of Snapchat (68%), Instagram (59%) and Facebook (43%) but it increases to 21% for 11 to 14-year olds, compared to 3% for 18 to 20-year olds.

TikTok finds itself at the crossroads of multiple tensions between China and the United States. Firstly, the company operating the social network is an object of technological competition. TikTok is developing cutting-edge tools for facial, image and voice recognition, rivalling with the capabilities of American giants. The company testifies of how intertwined innovation ecosystems in the United States and China are. In addition to Kevin Mayer’s appointment, TikTok is currently expanding its team of R&D engineers in the Silicon Valley and aims to strengthen the company’s American leadership.

Second, TikTok raises concerns over content moderation and foreign players’ ability to exert influence over national debates. This question already emerged from experiences with Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. Of course, the stakes with TikTok are slightly different given that the company originates from a country where the state exports censorship, is engaged in a global contest against democratic values and has started during the Covid-19 crisis to step up foreign influence operations . The disappearance of pro-democracy content from the platform during demonstrations in Hong Kong at the end of 2019 has not only fuelled fears in the United States of an export of China's censorship practices, but also of TikTok's potential to conduct disinformation and influence campaigns in future US elections.

TikTok is developing cutting-edge tools for facial, image and voice recognition, rivalling with the capabilities of American giants.

Beyond Hong Kong, The Guardian has revealed policies communicated to TikTok's content moderators, calling for the removal of content related to the repression of Tian'anmen, Tibetan independence and the Falun Gong religious group. While ByteDance responded by pointing out that the moderation policy in question was no longer being applied, TikTok’s content moderation policy remains highly controversial.

In November 2019, further leaks exposed practices, not of deletion, but of burying, to prevent certain videos from attracting too much attention. TikTok has since set up an expert committee to review the company’s content moderation policies and put an end to the controversies. It is chaired by Dawn Nunziato, a professor at George Washington University College of Law and co-director of the Global Internet Freedom Project.

Finally, TikTok is suspected of surveillance practices which given the international context of the US-China confrontation, raise concerns of intelligence collection and espionage. This explains why the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), has launched an investigation into ByteDance's takeover of Musical.ly to assess the threat level to US national security. The CFIUS particularly wants to ensure that the Chinese government does not have access to American citizens’ data and that it is indeed stored in the United States, an issue of data localization that has echoes in the French debate

This approach was enabled by the recent extension of the CFIUS’ scope of intervention, following the adoption in 2018 of the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA). The new provisions make it possible to block acquisitions of companies with access to sensitive personal data of a group larger than one million individuals. At the time of acquisition and prior to the integration into the TikTok platform, Musical.ly had 60 million users in the United States and Europe. US regulations define "sensitive" private data according to eleven categories, including financial data that could indicate personal hardship, health-related information and biometric identifiers. In addition to disinformation campaigns, access to this type of data allows the identification of vulnerabilities for recruitment by an intelligence agency.

The American investigation is all the more interesting in that it highlights the need for regulation of major digital platforms to ensure transparency, a sensitive issue for Europeans which American players are reluctant to tackle, while European governments are struggling to find the way through. In addition to the US investigation, the European Data Protection Board has set up a task force to look into TikTok’s data processing activities and privacy practices. In the long run, the European Commission is expected to come up with possible solutions within the framework of the Digital Services Act, for which a public consultation was launched on June 2, but drafting it could take several years. Yet, the lack of transparency regarding content moderation for example, is a potentially serious vulnerability for European democracies if exploited by hostile actors.

Yet, the lack of transparency regarding, for example, content moderation is a potentially serious vulnerability for European democracies if exploited by hostile actors.

TikTok's strategic move towards the United States may allow the company to effectively address concerns about data protection and content moderation. Better than any other company, TikTok sheds lights on the issues associated with controlling digital infrastructures, ranging from the creation of economic value through data capture to the influence of democratic debates and strategic China-US rivalry. TikTok's campaign for influence in the United States will be closely monitored by the European Commission.

 

Copyright : JOEL SAGET / AFP

 

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