By Sara Jhong
Despite many individuals self-isolating in their homes to prevent the spread of Covid-19, one popular app has made its way around the world at an unprecedented pace: TikTok. The popular app where many post short home videos and create 15 second content has over 800 million users, and many people are spending hours on the app, especially due to quarantine. The videos on TikTok range from people dancing to lip syncing to soundtracks and audio files to sharing recipes to very simply creating funny content. However, while the app seems relatively harmless, some are speculating that there is more than what meets the eye. In recent months, a lawsuit has been filed against TikTok as the app has been accused of selling user information to China.
TikTok has its origins in China, stemming from ByteDance, a Beijing company, when the company decided to merge the app Musical.ly with TikTok. ByteDance, while being a company based in Beijing, operates outside of China. While many ByteDance employees have denied that information is shared and sold, American government officials have continued investigating.
In November of 2019, the American government ordered a national security review of TikTok in fear of the incredible influence TikTok has had on Americans and the possibility that the app could be sending user information to China. It wouldn’t be the first time that Americans are suspicious of certain apps, but because of TikTok’s incredibly rapid user growth, the United States government has been looking into all suspicious activity and information surrounding the app. According to The New York Times, even New York senator Chuck Schumer has spoken out about the danger that TikTok poses on young Americans if the app really has been selling information to foreign governments. However, ByteDance has claimed that all American TikTok user data is stored in the United States with a backup redundancy in Singapore and also insists that despite being a company from Beijing, none of the data on their app is subject to Chinese law.
While the American government is still looking into the app and others like it, there has been no confirmation by officials that the app does indeed sell user information. The speculation at hand is being discussed in a legal setting with ByteDance, but there has been no recent news about the lawsuit or ongoing investigation since late 2019.
But in recent months, TikTok has been accused of more than just selling information: It has also been accused of removing videos and content that reflect badly on China. In late 2019, TikTok user Feroza Aziz was temporarily banned from the app and had her video, which discussed the poor treatment of Muslims in China, promptly removed. In the weeks following this endeavor, Aziz argued that her account was suspended “for trying to spread awareness.” TikTok followed up by issuing an apology to Aziz, claiming that the removal of her video and her account was due to human error and that there was no malicious intent behind the removal of her content.
TikTok does have specific rules and community guidelines in place that limit the content that users can post: The app reserves the right to ban any accounts and/or content relating to dangerous individuals and organizations, illegal activities and regulated goods, violent and graphic content, suicide and self-harm, hate speech, harrasement and bullying, and nudity and sexual activity. After apologizing to Aziz, TikTok restored her account and video, but she still isn’t sold on their apology.
In the age of technological innovation and social media domination, many apps receive scrutiny for a number of reasons: Facebook is notorious for leaking user information for advertisements. With its new rise to fame, it’s really no surprise that TikTok joins the many apps that exhibit suspicious behavior. Instead, the key to navigating apps that have had privacy leaks and information breaches in their past is to be mindful of not only the things you post online but also the things you like, watch, comment on, and subscribe to. TikTok has been seen as and called the sunny side of the internet before, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were no sunny side of the internet to begin with.