Personal Privacy and digital security: Does U.S. government involvement and regulation make TikTok better or worse?

Introduction: In the realm of cybersecurity and protection of personal privacy, many policies of technology companies are seen as tools of political diplomacy and means to gain benefits for the government of their respective countries. However, such practices have sparked a debate on whether political intervention and regulation have a positive or negative impact on technological advancement. This paper aims to explore the legitimacy of the U.S. government’s intervention and regulation of TikTok as a tool for political struggle, and critically discuss its impact on issues such as cybersecurity and personal privacy breaches.

Since the rise of the short video economy, TikTok has been subject to strong criticism from governments around the world, resulting in certain jurisdictions banning it altogether. (Gray, 2021)

At the beginning of this year, the US government initiated a ban on TikTok. The three reasons for restricting TikTok were as follows:

  • TikTok’s management is be controlled by the Chinese government, which makes TikTok a threat to U.S. national security. First of all, TikTok’s management is controlled by the Chinese government, which makes TikTok a threat to US national security. “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it” (Lemley, 2021). Lemley defines ‘Splinternet’ as the gradual division of the internet into separate and independent ecosystems, due to different countries having different mechanisms and regulations for internet content censorship, resulting in stronger regulatory oversight of foreign technology companies’ software by their respective governments. Because the US government regards TikTok as a product exported overseas from China’s Dou Yin and because of its popularity among US citizens due to its convenience, real-time updates and rich entertainment value, this has led to the exploitation of the US software market share and the gradual erosion of US dominance in the market, which has harmed its leading position.
  • TikTok could be used to influence people in the United States, and the Chinese government could use it to control data collection from millions of users or control recommendation algorithms that could be used to influence operations. Secondly, TikTok could be used to influence people in the United States, and the Chinese government could use it to control data collection from millions of users or control recommendation algorithms that could be used to influence operations. The severe infringement of personal privacy of American users caused by TikTok’s collection and transmission of user data to China raises concerns about US national cybersecurity. The impact of biased algorithms results in the long-term misinformation being fed to the citizens of a country, causing them to believe what is incorrect as correct. This can indeed lead to the manipulation of political ideologies and allow other countries to gain control over public opinion and societal biases.
  • The use of TikTok can harm children’s mental health. After TikTok became popular, many children use their mobile phones more frequently, which makes most parents worry about their children’s physical and mental health. Finally, TikTok’s review mechanism is comparable to that of American local software such as Instagram, but its lenient review may allow children to see the products of online harm such as bloodshed, violence, and pornography, causing significant psychological damage to them.

Source: “TikTok on iPhone” by Nordskov Media is marked with CC0 1.0.

The TikTok CEO’s hearing in April:

After the United States issued a ban on TikTok, TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew, attended a hearing and expressed his own opinions. The CEO of TikTok made three points:

  1. TikTok has no interest in the Chinese government. Firstly, TikTok does not have any dealings with the Chinese government, which responds to the US government’s concern about TikTok controlling its algorithms to gain a biased and prejudiced public opinion. 
  2. TikTok’s CEO said TikTok and China’s Douyin use two different management systems, and China’s is relatively strict. Secondly, TikTok and China’s Douyin use two different management and censorship systems. Surveillance and identification technologies help ensure social cohesion and security (O’Hara & Hall, 2018). Due to the different national conditions, China’s content review is relatively stricter, which refutes the “Splinternet” issue raised by the US government. Furthermore, TikTok has a teenage mode. Based on its regulatory mechanisms similar to those of platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, the explicit, violent, and other objectionable videos that can be seen on TikTok are also prevalent on other American platforms. TikTok also advises parents to activate the teenage mode when allowing young children to use the app, which demonstrates the platform’s commitment to child safety and its responsiveness to issues regarding content moderation.
  3. TikTok isn’t violating the privacy of American users. Thirdly, and most importantly, TikTok did not violate the privacy of American users, which also addresses the US government’s concern about TikTok transmitting data overseas and obtaining personal privacy of American citizens.

Regarding the ban on TikTok, people in different age groups in the United States have different views. 

For Young People: TikTok is the most popular social media app among young people (Gray, 2021). Among the young population, only one-third of them support the ban (Sherman, 2023). The majority of young people disregard the ban and can still access TikTok in certain regions where it is prohibited through the use of VPNs, which does not effectively deter people from using TikTok. 

For Adults: As for adults, 53% of them support a nationwide ban on Chinese-owned social applications and urge authorities to take measures to restrict and regulate TikTok. These two perspectives represent extremely different viewpoints, with young people placing more emphasis on the social and entertainment aspects of TikTok, while adults prioritize national security and personal privacy.

Source: “AD at Student Voices Discussion with National Council of Young Leaders 1 October 2012” by US Department of Education is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Conclusion: In my opinion, platform politics is a very sensitive and highly tense socio-political topic (Gray, 2021), the regulation and restrictions of TikTok in the United States have helped the country’s data not to be leaked, the privacy of users has been secured, and consolidated its leadership position, but this will lead to a good software ban, which will violate the trade liberalization advocated by the United States, TikTok has developed to the point that it is no longer a social platform in the simple sense. The large number of economic possibilities and scientific and technological innovation capabilities behind it cannot be ignored. The “management challenge” (Armstrong & Hagel III, 1996) is also a problem that platform CEOs should face, and the TikTok management team should adapt and redefine new rules.

Therefore, from the perspective of the development of platforms and the Internet, it is best to avoid geopolitical intervention, but from the perspective of politicians and their own governments, the Internet and platforms are indeed a good tool to achieve national interests.

Reference List:

Sherman, N. (2023, March 14). TikTok美国年轻用户为何对中国威胁论不屑一顾. BBC News 中文.

Maheshwari, S., & Holpuch, A. (2023, March 3). Why Countries Are Trying to Ban TikTok. The New York Times.

Lemley, M. A. (2021). THE SPLINTERNET. Duke Law Journal70(6), 1397–1428.

Gray, J. E. (2021). The geopolitics of “platforms”: the TikTok challenge. Internet Policy Review10(2).

Armstrong, A., & Hagel III, J. (1996, May 1). The Real Value of On-Line Communities. Harvard Business Review.

O’Hara, K., & Hall, W. (2018, December 7). Four Internets: The Geopolitics of Digital Governance. Centre for International Governance Innovation.

Paul, K., Bhuiyan, J., Paul (now), K., & Bhuiyan (earlier), J. (2023, March 23). TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before US Congress amid growing security concerns – live. The Guardian

Edited by Brenner JIA

Date: 02/10/2023