Perspective: Free App, Free Speech?

Nov 29, 2019

Have you heard about TikTok?

TikTok is a video-sharing application developed by the Beijing-based Internet start-up ByteDance. The app has been wildly popular with teenagers all over the world. How popular? 1.2 billion installs as of June 2019, making TikTok the first Chinese app to achieve international scale.

But the app is not without its critics, and it is getting some push-back from U.S. lawmakers. So what’s the problem? Like all social media platforms, TikTok collects, stores, and leverages user data. But what makes TikTok different from many of the other apps residing on your smart phone is the fact that ByteDance is a Chinese company incorporated under Chinese law.

What concerns US lawmakers is that the corporation could, under pressure from the Chinese government, either censor politically sensitive content or turn over data from American users to Chinese officials.

ByteDance has countered these concerns, explaining that it stores all U.S. user-data on servers located inside the United States and stipulating that legal jurisdiction for the service is located in Singapore. This means, on paper at least, that U.S. users and their data should be sufficiently insulated. But there are reasons to be cautious.

ByteDance is a Chinese company subject to Chinese law. The Chinese government has previously compelled other tech companies to censor content deemed politically sensitive. And there are already credible reports that TikTok has intentionally buried content concerning the protests in Hong Kong.

So the app may be free, but the speech might not be.

I’m David Gunkel, and that’s my perspective.