Senator Marco Rubio has asked the U.S. administration to investigate the Chinese social media app TikTok after reports that the company is censoring content worldwide according to Beijing’s policies. Rubio has asked the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is tasked with overseeing foreign acquisitions that might impact national security, to carry out the investigation.
The TikTok threat
“Ample & growing evidence exists that TikTok’s platform for western markets, including the U.S., are censoring content in line with #China’s communist government directives… Have already formally asked Trump administration to fully enforce anti-boycott laws that prohibit any U.S. person — including U.S. subsidiaries of Chinese companies from complying with foreign boycotts seeking to coerce U.S. companies to conform with #China’s government views,” Rubio said in a tweet @marcorubio.
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On October 9, the senator wrote a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, arguing that TikTok has been blocking U.S. users from accessing content related to the Tiananmen Square massacre, Taiwan independence, and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. In fact, several security experts have already raised alarm bells over the fact that TikTok shows little to no content about the Hong Kong protests even though it is being covered quite extensively in the U.S. by all media platforms.
In September, The Guardian accessed leaked documents from TikTok that showed the company had asked moderators to censor videos that mentioned Tibetan independence, Tiananmen Square, or Falun Gong. In February, the U.S. government fined TikTok US$5.7 million after it came to light that the company was illegally collecting the private information of underage users.
The popularity of TikTok is also a big problem for the U.S. in the AI race. Since the company harvests data from millions of users worldwide and can use such information for any means, there is a strong possibility that it might be used to further the development of AI technologies. And since Beijing will essentially use such technologies to repress people, the growth of Chinese AI represents a new challenge to the ideals of democracy and liberty.
TikTok “harvests insights based on what its users actually click on, read, and watch — right down to the type of music, faces, and voices in videos — learning as it goes… Facebook was revolutionary because it tapped into our social grid of friends to serve relevant recommendations, but TikTok goes right to the source using AI to map out interests and desires we may not even be able to articulate to ourselves,” according to Fast Company.
In January, Claudia Biancotti from the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) warned that the data collected by TikTok could allow Beijing to improve its surveillance technologies. For instance, the Chinese government has installed a wide network of facial recognition systems all across China. However, the system lacked data on Western faces. But the app can supply Beijing with millions of Western faces that will allow the facial recognition system to become superior.
“In the United States, one of the most active [community of users] consists of young military service members. They upload videos of themselves, often executing fitness exercises, in uniform and with ID tags in plain sight. The filming happens inside military facilities, and sometimes in what looks like a war theater. TikTok, like the vast majority of social apps, collects location data,” she wrote in an article.
Biancotti warns that TikTok could end up being a Trojan horse of the AI race and that China should not be allowed to spread such apps all across the world while killing competition back home.