TikTok boasts an estimated 150 million unique monthly users in...

TikTok boasts an estimated 150 million unique monthly users in the United States. Credit: AP/Michael Dwyer

Now that President Joe Biden has signed into law a prospective TikTok ban in the United States, the clock is ticking on whether ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company, will sell the wildly popular app to a U.S. owner within a year as required -- or face shutdown.

TikTok boasts an estimated 150 million unique monthly users in the U.S. If not sold, it would disappear from the Apple and Google app stores, preventing many users from downloading it or updating it. Other big internet companies will see an opportunity to pick up the slack and profits.

The company is expected to sue, citing First Amendment and other issues, to stop the targeted legislation. That could extend the timeline as the case moves through the courts. Also in question: whether China's Communist Party will let ByteDance sell TikTok and its algorithm which directs content to users.

But the rationale for the law is not entirely about content, whether it shows musical acts or cooking demonstrations or something else. The legislation grew out of a yearslong security concern regarding information collected from users and the possibility of China's authoritarian government collecting it as intelligence or to refine and direct political propaganda. To put it mildly, Chinese officials have far more power than does our government over business operations. So it’s plausible that ByteDance, and therefore TikTok, could be forced to cooperate with security forces that may wish to scoop up data from the app.

That’s troubling. The opaqueness of these matters was illustrated last year when the CCP sent a surveillance balloon over the U.S. that its officials dubiously claimed was a weather instrument gone astray. Shortly after, in lower Manhattan, came more accessible evidence of Chinese government spying – the establishment of what the Justice Department earnestly called a secret police station. About three dozen officers with China’s national police force were charged with using social media to harass dissidents inside the U.S., The Associated Press reported one year ago. So this isn’t a concern to be brushed aside as a bit of diplomatic friction.

It’s reasonable to presume that in closed-door oversight briefings, federal law enforcement officials convinced key members of Congress of the seriousness of their TikTok concerns. Efforts to crack down on the video app began during the Trump administration and four years later found bipartisan consensus at the Capitol.

But in a case like this, it would behoove the administration and Congress to provide a reasonable amount of evidence to demonstrate the likelihood that TikTok data is or will be abused. Even if the Chinese government sticks to its opacity, the U.S. should stand for openness and carefully make clearer to the voting public the nature of any danger TikTok poses in its current form. Maybe that will happen in court.

We need to know the true contours of TikTok's possible threat when weighing its impact on our personal freedom.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.


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