China, which combines this tradition with a totalitarian government, takes data collection to the max. Facial recognition is omnipresent, nearly all transactions, even in the real world, are digital, and social networks like WeChat are completely open to censors, both from Tencent and the government; the government even hacks your computers as a matter of policy. Given this reality it is completely reasonable to be concerned about TikTok data!
That, though, is not the primary risk: what should truly concern Americans is the algorithm.
After all, this certainly wasn’t the first time that TikTok has seemed to act politically: the service censored #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd, blocked a teenager discussing China’s genocide in Xinjiang, and blocked a video of Tank Man. The Guardian published TikTok guidelines that censored Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and the Falun Gong, and I myself demonstrated that TikTok appeared to be censoring the Hong Kong protests and Houston Rockets basketball team.
The point, though, is not just censorship, but its inverse: propaganda. TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?
One of the more pernicious mistruths surrounding the debate about TikTok is that this will potentially lead to the splintering of the Internet; this completely erases the history of China’s Great Firewall, started 23 years ago, which effectively cut China off from most Western services. That the U.S. may finally respond in kind is a reflection of reality, not the creation of a new one.
What is new is the increased splintering in the non-China Internet: the U.S. model is still the default for most of the world, but the European Union and India are increasingly pursuing their own paths.