A leading technology policy expert is calling for “a wholesale ban on TikTok” a day before the Chinese-owned social media app’s chief executive officer will testify before Congress.
TikTok faces bipartisan scrutiny at both the state and federal level. More than 30 states, led by both Democrat and Republican governors, have taken action to ban the app on some or all state-issued devices and networks, The Daily Signal previously reported. TikTok’s chief executive officer, Shou Zi Chew, will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday.
“I think the TikTok national security threat is so grave, so immediate, that TikTok should be banned outright,” says Kara Frederick, director of the Tech Policy Center at The Heritage Foundation. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
Frederick, whose research focuses on emerging technology policy and Big Tech, adds that she is calling for “a wholesale ban on TikTok, not just on government devices.” She talks about the danger of “allowing U.S. user data to get in the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party].”
Frederick joins today’s episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to further discuss the TikTok CEO’s testimony, what she would ask Shou if she were in the hearing, and The Heritage Foundation’s “Moms Against TikTok” rally, which is also on Thursday.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Samantha Aschieris: Joining today’s podcast is Kara Frederick. Kara is the director of the Tech Policy Center here at The Heritage Foundation, where her research focuses on Big Tech and emergency technology policy. Kara, thank you so much for joining us.
Kara Frederick: Of course. Thanks for having me.
Aschieris: So before we discuss the TikTok CEO’s testimony on Thursday, I want to take a step back and walk through how we ended up here in the first place. Now, as many of our listeners probably know, you’ve been one of the leading voices sounding the alarm over the dangers of TikTok and national security concerns. So can you take us back to when this conversation around TikTok really began?
Frederick: Yeah. I think it sort of entered popular consciousness when the CFIUS review was announced around 2019, and that’s the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States where they’re charged with assessing and evaluating the national security concerns surrounding transactions, something, and digital platforms like TikTok. That’s not their only remit, but that’s the one that’s relevant here.
And what the Trump administration tried to do the next year in 2020 was issue an executive order effectively banning TikTok and WeChat, another digital application that we can or we can’t talk about in this conversation. But I think it’s understandably drawn the most ire—TikTok that is—because most of the next generation of Americans and the younger generation of Americans use it.
And people sort of know, “OK, my kid, my niece, my young cousin is using this little video chat app and there seems to be some murkiness around it.” And then when the CFIUS review was announced back in 2019, people were kind of like, “All right, what’s the deal with this? It seems harmless.” That kind of thing.
So that was when at The Heritage Foundation in the Davis center they were looking very seriously about the connection to the Chinese Communist Party via its parent company, ByteDance, and in other national security circles. We were sort of saying that, “Hey, this is the next Huawei, this is the next Trojan horse.”
We know Huawei is a Chinese company that sought to build out our next-generation wireless networks in America. And the Trump administration rightfully put a stop to that, saying that, “Hey, there’s the idea that back doors, [they] could be built into these networks to get American data that potentially bug doors,” which are programming vulnerabilities that could be purposefully or even inadvertently turned on and designed into these networks. So I think the hard security concerns were very apparent with something like that.
But when you take a cute little dance app and you say, “No, there’s a legitimate national security interest in stopping what’s going on here,” then people start to say, “Are you sure? Are you sure you’re not just fearmongering?” But that’s when it sort of broke into the national consciousness.
Sen. [Josh] Hawley was, in a lot of ways is, a leader when it comes to exposing the dangers of TikTok and its relationship to the CCP. So he presided over a hearing in November 2019 discussing how corporations are using your data and exploiting your data, and there’s a China angle to a lot of this as well.
So that was a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism hearing where the chair for the TikTok representative sat open next to a Heritage fellow who was testifying, myself, who was testifying, and another member of a think tank testifying as well as a Microsoft representative. So that was sort of the first big push.
Sen. Marco Rubio was warning about this as well. And then it kind of faded a little bit, but as it was fading, as the CFIUS review was ongoing for years, TikTok just skyrocketed in popularity. And now I think because of the scale of that growth, because of its grip on the American populace and especially the youngest among us, I think that is something that people are starting to understand matters in a big way.
And it’s broken again into the popular consciousness with a lot of these legislative efforts put forth by not only our federal legislators in Congress, but also by states who are one by one banning it on government devices, which is great. A proposal by Josh Hawley passed in the omnibus last year to ban it on federal government devices as well.
So we’ve gotten a lot of momentum, but in between where we are today, where we were back then in 2019 and in the summer of 2021, [President] Joe Biden rescinded [former President Donald] Trump’s executive order that would effectively ban TikTok and WeChat and replaced it with some vague promises to sort of look into the digital platforms that would pose specific threats if they met specific criteria going forward, which I think is a good idea generally.
We have to prep for the next TikTok. I’ve been saying that since 2019. With a risk-based platform that’s flexible, that you have to have your criteria listed out and then there has to be a rule set that triggers policy action if certain criteria are met.
But at the same time, I think the TikTok national security threat is so grave, so immediate, that TikTok should be banned outright. A wholesale ban on TikTok, not just on government devices, because it’s not going to be the solution to not allowing U.S. user data to get in the hands of the CPP.
And we can talk about those gradations and third parties and whatnot all we want there, but you have to stop the bleeding, you have to staunch the wound, and the only way to do that is with the wholesale ban of TikTok from operating in the U.S. market. Full stop.
Aschieris: Now, just before we get any further, I wanted to just give you the chance to explain WeChat. I know you brought it up in your last answer, but just for some of our audience members who might not be aware of WeChat and those concerns with WeChat as well.
Frederick: Yeah. So, WeChat is a digital platform that a lot of the Chinese diaspora uses. And it’s something that Elon Musk has even discussed in terms of how he sees Twitter growing in the future. It’s sort of like the everything app. You can communicate through direct messages, you can pay for things on it, you can watch things on it. And it’s an app that encompasses all of those functions, like a pocket knife of a digital application.
And it’s not just something like TikTok, which is primarily just videos and a data collection platform, frankly, but it’s something that especially people of Chinese ethnicity here in the U.S. use to communicate with family members throughout the diaspora. So it’s a big sort of everything app—payments, videos, entertainment, buying, selling, e-commerce, etc.
Aschieris: Yeah. Wow. Well, moving ahead to tomorrow, the CEO of TikTok’s testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Now, this is the first time that the CEO will appear before Congress. What do you think it’s important to hear from him specifically about?
Frederick: Yeah. So, I am not sanguine about hearing the truth. I’m not sanguine about hearing that we will institute proper safeguards against the exploitation of American user data because TikTok executives ad nauseum and representatives have promised us over and over and over again that safeguards are in place, that it is not easy for engineers, say, in China, working for the parent company ByteDance, to access American user data. That’s been proven wrong.
Frankly, on Jake Tapper’s show, a TikTok executive couldn’t even admit that there are genocidal atrocities being committed in Xinjiang, in that region in China, against the Muslim-minority Uyghur people.
So I expect more of the same. So I’m not looking for him to provide assurances, though he will. I’m looking for him to actually make good on those promises. Unfortunately, given what we’ve seen through their conduct, through their data collection practices, through the fact that they have repeatedly said that “We don’t access U.S. user data because that’s stored in U.S. and Singapore,” and that’s been proven to be not true, I’m not really looking for him to say anything that is going to assure me that TikTok can be trusted and thus, I think the ban is the only option.
They’ve been given the opportunity to clean up their act and they’ve made overtures, but they’re not those overtures like Project Texas and whatnot, which gives third-party oversight, ideas toward divestment, which ByteDance said they wouldn’t even give up the source code, they would retain it in that Beijing-headquartered company.
It’s not enough. It’s absolutely not enough. So I’m not really looking for him to come out with any gems, I’m looking for him to basically sit there while the House members expose some of these practices to the American public.
Aschieris: Yes. And just speaking of that, I wanted to give you the opportunity—I asked Keith Krach, he was just on the show on Friday, and I just asked him the same question. I want to get your thoughts on this. I’m curious, if you were a lawmaker in the hearing, given the opportunity to ask the TikTok CEO a question, what would you ask him?
Frederick: Yeah. That’s a good question. I would ask them how they plan on addressing their efforts to recruit preteens and the younger and younger generation of Americans. I would ask him how tied in the CCP is with the manipulation of the algorithm and the source code.
You have direct array coming out on multiple occasions saying that China has the ability to control the algorithm, that China has the ability to control the software on the devices where TikTok is downloaded. I would want more granularity from him on that.
I don’t think—again, these guys are coached. I’m sure he has been coached for weeks and weeks. Again, they equivocate with the best of them. They tauter the line between truth and falsehood very well and I don’t expect us to get any good answers, but I do expect the members to expose some of these practices to Americans that maybe they’ve been unaware.
And that is something that TikTok, ByteDance they intentionally obfuscate these connections between who’s controlling the source code, who’s accessing what data, how are these internal tools used to potentially access the data.
Sen. Hawley’s letter to [Treasury Secretary] Janet Yellen, since she’s the top person when it comes to the CFIUS review, was assessing through a whistleblower that toggling between U.S. data and data at ByteDance, headquartered in China, was like flipping a light switch due to a specific internal tool.
So we’ve been assured that there’s safeguards, that it’s very difficult, there’s things akin to firewalls that are creating friction between accessing American data, and that appears to be false, not just through this whistleblower testimony, but that corroborates a lot of what we’ve heard from, again, BuzzFeed reporting, Forbes reporting, etc., etc.
Aschieris: Now, also on Thursday, The Heritage Foundation is hosting a “Moms Against TikTok” rally. I wanted to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit more about it and why it’s being held.
Frederick: Yeah. So, I think this is the thing that those of us who are used to the national security implications and diving into that area, we tend to consider the potential mental health harms more squishy and this whole idea of social contagions being supercharged by this platform less relevant to the hard cyber concerns to the potential influence operations that could be tailored directly to these users, but I think it’s actually the most important. I think it speaks to what The Federalist’s Emily Jashinsky says is the social fabric of our nation and how it’s really tearing at that fabric and it’s doing it through our young people.
And even the surgeon general, who is part of the Biden administration, he I think laid this out very clearly. He was speaking generally about social media platforms, but he basically said between kids and the designers of these social media platforms, it’s not a fair fight. You’re pitting children up against the best designers in the world, the best programmers, the best engineers in the world, and you’re telling them to control themselves and exercise some discipline or you’re telling parents that they need to be better.
And that is an element, but I think you also have to understand the deliberate nature of the targeting intrinsic to the business models of specific platforms, not just TikTok, but TikTok, ByteDance in particular, given the CCP connections, which we can talk about it. One of three board members of ByteDance’s … main domestic subsidiary is a card-carrying Chinese official. You have 300-plus LinkedIn profiles of ByteDance professionals saying that they have a relationship to Chinese state media, either former or current, and over and over again. So there’s that aspect of it too.
And I think it’s most clearly articulated in a question that many people have now posed. If you were China and you wanted to destroy your greatest adversary, America, would you be doing anything different with this platform? You wouldn’t because it seems to be effectively pushing gender dissatisfaction, gender dysphoria, eating disorder content, suicidal, self-harm content. And again, a lot of social media platforms have this problem, but I sort of like to say that the new face of teen despair is here and it’s coming through a Chinese algorithm.
Aschieris: Wow. That was heavy.
Aschieris: It’s OK. It’s OK.
Frederick: We’re wearing black. I figured.
Aschieris: I also wanted to talk a little bit about the fact that there’s been these TikTok influencers in Washington this week trying to persuade lawmakers not to ban the app. There’s been, as we’ve been talking about, this bipartisan push to ban the app. Now The Washington Times reports that the TikTok influencers assembling in Washington are people who use the platform for trying to make a living and put food on their tables. That’s according to a TikTok spokesperson, Jamal Brown. What are your thoughts on that?
Frederick: Yeah. It makes me sad. It doesn’t necessarily just make me laugh, it makes me sad because we’ve seen the effects that TikTok in particular has on American young people. And I understand that everybody wants to put food on the table, but these TikTok influences aren’t doing that. They just want their next designer handbag and they’re unwilling to take one for the team when it comes to exposing children to not only the filth on these platforms, but exposing them to exploitation by the CCP. I think most of them probably know what they’re doing and push it back to the corner of their mind and justify it in some way, but you can always go to another social media platform.
But the Pennsylvania mother whose daughter accidentally killed herself by attempting the “blackout challenge,” 10-year-old daughter, she’s never going to get her daughter back, never going to get her daughter back. But you could always go to another social media platform and try your hand at making money there and putting, even if it’s not the most expensive food on the table, again, as I’ve said before, you can take one for the team.
And a lot of these effects I think are now becoming concrete. You have certain outlets in the U.K. who are running these experiments, registering on the platform as 13-year-olds, and finding the self-harm content that’s pushed to them by TikTok’s insanely successful algorithm is much different and more effective, I think, than a lot of these other social media platforms. That’s why they’re trying to copy the algorithm, thus far unsuccessfully.
You find the suicidal content once some Western media outlets—this is the New York Post, actually, a woman, a journalist there created accounts of registering as a 14-year-old, and she found that she got self-harm and suicidal content within five minutes, depression and mental illness within similar timeframes. The U.K. outlets registered as 13-year-olds and they got tens of thousands of weight loss videos within weeks. And just similar techniques. 13-year-old registered users got eating disorder content within eight minutes of joining the app.
So this is TikTok, this is effective. And you want to talk about the impact of these influencers, they said, “This is going to have real-world impacts on us.” Yeah, it’s already having real-world impacts and they aren’t good.
Aschieris: Yeah. Well, Kara, just before we go, I wanted to give you the opportunity to share any final thoughts.
Frederick: Yeah. So, I think because it requires explanation, I think most Americans don’t understand the threat. So the easiest way to explain it is to say that TikTok, by virtue of its parent company, ByteDance, which is headquartered in Beijing, is subject to the laws and policies that govern these platforms. And they are governed by the Chinese Communist Party. And the easiest one to talk about is the 2017 National Intelligence Law, which compels any private entity to cooperate with state intelligence work. So we say ByteDance is going to turn over data or provide access to the Chinese Communist Party if they ask for it.
Now TikTok says, “We will never do that if Beijing asks.” They can do it through ByteDance. And we know that ByteDance, again, because of their domestic subsidiary, at least one of the three board members is a card-carrying member of the Chinese government. And they’re, again, seeding these companies with not just individuals, but with strategy. They have internal committees that deliberate over some of the workings of the platforms. The Trump Justice Department came out with a memo that explained that. We know that the CCP is intimately involved with ByteDance. ByteDance owns TikTok.
It’d be like saying, if you know Alphabet, which is the parent company to Google, we are so separate from them, but you know that they’re working hand in glove. They’ve proven that they’re working hand in glove. Leaked master messaging, PR documents even indicate that they want to downplay the relationship between China and TikTok, the relationship between the parent company to Google and TikTok, and the relationship between artificial intelligence and TikTok, which is a conversation for another day. But equip yourselves properly, America, and get yourselves off TikTok.
Aschieris: Well, Kara, thank you so much for joining us today. Always a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks so much.
Frederick: Of course. Thanks for having me, Sam.
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