TikTok: Does China own you?

Most Riverside students are either obsessed with TikTok, or know someone who is.

The short-form video social media app is a cultural phenomenon, spawning countless trends and a new crop of internet mini-celebrities. Most people aren’t aware that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, which after purchasing Musical.ly in 2017, rebranded their app as TikTok and expanded into international markets. TikTok exploded in popularity, hitting 1.5 billion users overall. ByteDance was recently valued at $75 billion, making it the most valuable tech startup in the world.

If you’re an American teen, chances are that a good amount of the apps on your phone are either partially or fully owned by a Chinese company. By subtly marketing their apps to Americans and buying large shares of companies, China is increasingly involved in the US technology sector. Fan of mobile gaming? Chinese conglomerate Tencent owns the majority of Supercell, the company behind Riverside favorites such as Clash of Clans and Brawl Stars. It also owns a 40 percent stake in Cary-based Fortnite creator Epic Games.

At a time when the US is economically and culturally at odds with China, it seems strange that Chinese apps like TikTok are so successful in American markets. China’s meteoric growth is scaring Americans. This year, Trump’s long-escalating trade war has increased anti-China rhetoric and destabilized the countries’ relationship. Coupled with stimulating incredible economic growth, the Chinese government has a long history of human rights violations, supporting unethical business practices, and authoritarian control of its citizens through propaganda, censorship, and surveillance technologies.

This is what makes the popularity of apps like TikTok so concerning. While Bytedance is technically a private company, Chinese law grants its government unlimited access to any technology or information held by Bytedance which may have “military or intelligence significance.” In other words, there is no barrier between technology hosted on Chinese servers and Chinese state officials. Those who use technology to express concern about Chinese policies have long found themselves targeted by the government due to this fact.

The United States, of course, has made some regulation efforts. Last month, a national security investigation was opened on TikTok. Lawmakers have raised concern over censorship on the app, particularly on content that goes against the Chinese government’s narrative. For example, politicians have noticed the lack of content on the app about the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong or Muslim internment camps in China, which might paint China as authoritarian. There is also fear that the app will contribute to the spread of political misinformation, similar to Facebook’s role in the 2016 presidential elections.

This legislative response may be too little and too late. We’ve already seen how China responds when provoked by their American investments. In October, when the general manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests, backlash from Chinese companies and organizations was immediate. Fearing the withdrawal of investments from these powerful stakeholders, the NBA denounced the Rockets manager and distanced itself from the situation. The NBA effectively set a precedent, showing how dangerous it is to give foreign companies too much economic leverage in important American cultural institutions. Beijing can essentially export censorship and propaganda, and US businesses are too dependent on their money to take a stand.

But why should teenagers care? Taking a personal stand against technocracy is inconvenient and can feel pointless. Most people are willing to sacrifice privacy for convenience and enjoyment, continuing to use products like Facebook regardless of their widely-known unethical use of personal data. While American teens shouldn’t be held responsible for allowing Chinese companies to become so entrenched in the technosphere, there needs to be more conversation on the digital habits of young people. I encourage everyone to put more thought into which apps they choose to give their information and time. If having your personal data harvested from your iPhone by a foreign government doesn’t scare you, being limited in the content you can post and your sense of freedom online should.

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