It is a face-to-face with technological, cultural, political and diplomatic ramifications that was held in the US Congress on Thursday, March 23. Chew Shou Zi, the CEO of TikTok, plays the future of this social network of Chinese origin against American elected officials who want to know if American national security is in danger.
"The stakes are huge for Chew Shou Zi, because if he responds badly, it can tip a majority of lawmakers in favor of the forced sale of TikTok to an American partner or its outright ban on American territory," said Hamza Mudassir, co-founder of the British start-up consulting firm Platypodes and professor of entrepreneurial strategy at the University of Cambridge.
TikTok plays big
Such an outcome would be a financial abyss for the favorite social network of teens, since the United States represents "between 30% and 40% of the company's overall turnover," says this expert.
But Chew Shou Zi is not gambling the future of his application simply on this hearing. It represents the culmination of a years-long behind-the-scenes influence battle waged by TikTok to try to assuage the fears of US authorities.
The political climate suddenly became tense for the app in 2020 while Donald Trump was still residing in the White House. The billionaire president had decided to ban the social network and sell it to an American company. All just because the application was Chinese and that the champion of Make America great again was crusading against everything that came from China. TikTok is, in fact, the "western" version of Douyin, an application created by the Chinese giant of artificial intelligence ByteDance.
TikTok had been saved at that time by the American justice, which had annulled Donald Trump's decree. But the social network, scalded by this episode, had then set about setting up its "Project Texas", code name for its charm offensive in the United States.
This is a wide range of measures supposed to demonstrate that TikTok has cut the umbilical cord with ByteDance, and therefore would no longer be at the mercy of Beijing's interventionism, the main concern in Washington.
This attack plan is detailed in a 90-page document submitted to the US administration in 2022 and some details of which were unveiled to a small group of US journalists and data protection experts in January of this year.
Saving the TikTok soldier from Texas
The operation involves two main initiatives: the establishment of a 100% American structure, with a 100% American staff, and the handing over of the keys to access to the data of American TikTok users to a "trusted" partner. It is the giant Oracle – headquartered in Texas, hence the code name of the project – which must become the guardian of the social network's data on American soil.
The first part of this plan was completed with the creation of TikTok U.S. Data Security Inc. (USDS) in July 2022. This American subsidiary of the social network must take care of data access and content moderation, that is to say "the main issues that may be related to US national security," says the legal blog Lawfare, which was invited to the presentation of Project Texas by TikTok.
The US administration is supposed to have direct control over all employees hired by this structure. In particular, it can conduct background investigations of these employees, to ensure that no Chinese spy has crept into the company.
The data protection aspect is more technical, and TikTok has opened "transparency centers" in the United States to show concretely how Oracle employees will be able to verify that no personal information of a US person is transferred to ByteDance.
Oracle will be able to verify that there is nothing suspicious in TikTok's algorithm code and ensure that there is no change to the app that would allow China to exercise some form of censorship over content seen in the United States.
In all, "this is a very expensive effort for TikTok, which wants to spend $1.5 billion to set up Project Texas. It's also a very comprehensive plan, but it's not at all clear that it's going to be enough," Mudassir said.
The problem for this social network comes from the fact that "the United States, culturally, does not approach the TikTok issue from the perspective of data protection, but essentially by invoking the threat to national security," says Luca Mattei, a data protection specialist for the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona, an international collective of experts in international security issues.
"I don't really see what China could do so badly with Americans' data. But what is more worrying is the use of TikTok for propaganda," Adam Segal, director of the Cyberspace Regulation Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, told Buzzfeed. He is especially concerned that China will ask ByteDance to flood TikTok with propaganda content aimed at the North American public.
A concern that TikTok "will never be able to appease 100% with technical solutions, because it is impossible to prove that ByteDance no longer has any access or influence over operations in the United States," says Hamza Mudassir.
That's why, in addition to Project Texas, TikTok has launched an extensive lobbying campaign. "ByteDance spent $5.3 million getting its message out to Washington in 2022. Only Meta [Facebook], Amazon and Alphabet [Google's parent company] spent more," the New York Times said.
In the weeks leading up to his congressional hearing, the CEO of TikTok did everything he could to personally meet with each of the elected officials asked questions. "We're not used to having a face-to-face with a CEO of a powerful tech group like that," Lori Trahan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, told The Washington Post.
But here again, TikTok faces an obstacle: the lobbying of the American Internet giants against them. Groups much more established in Washington, such as Facebook, "have argued to elected officials that TikTok does indeed pose a threat to national security," the New York Times found.
It's a good war, says Hamza Mudassir. "TikTok has become much more popular than them with young people and these big groups have every interest in pushing their rival into troubled waters," he said.
The Data War
And the hearing that is taking place in Congress is, in reality, not just about the United States. "If things go wrong and in the end the United States decides to ban TikTok, all Washington's allies, starting with the United Kingdom, will follow suit," Mudassir said. The British Parliament announced Thursday, during the hearing of Chew Shou Zi, the ban of TikTok on all its devices, a week after a similar announcement by the government.
What is at stake in Washington would even exceed the TikTok case. "The arguments that are developed in this story reflect the broader debate on data governance and in particular the current trend towards protectionism in this area," Mattei said.
More and more countries, such as the United States, want to have control over the destination of personal data exploited by foreign groups. It is no coincidence that, in Washington, "there is a rare consensus between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of TikTok," notes Luca Mattei.
The TikTok case proves that today, the protection of personal data is no longer only a question of privacy, but also of national sovereignty or geopolitical confrontation. Even if they are often rather futile videos, at least compared to a Sino-American geopolitical conflict for global technological leadership.
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