Tik Tok, formally known as Musical.ly which is owned by ByteDance is being accused by the US government that the app is a national security issue, and they want to ban it from use in the United States.
TikTok is a wildly popular social media app that is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. The US government sees this as a national security threat due to the fact that the Chinese government could use its “2017 national intelligence law” to demand the data from the 100 million US TikTok users. President Donald Trump issues an executive order on August 6th, 2020 beginning to ban the app from use. This idea of banning the app is a serious issue for the users because many of the users use this app as a platform for promoting small businesses, talking about important issues and bringing awareness to different things, and so much more. The US government also has reason to believe that there were other reasons for worry with this app due to some manipulation with the 2020 election information. Another thing that they are worried about in the theme of national security is the algorithm which is what decides what videos you see on your for you page, they are concerned that this idea of the Chinese policy of “military-civil fusion” could potentially transfer this AI technology over to the Chinese government.
Overall, the US government has a very deep fear that TikTok could be a threat to national security and more due to the fact that it is owned by a Chinese company. Something that could potentially solve this problem would be if it was owned by a non Chinese company, which we will later see in the paper see that it is a possibility for an American company to come in and save TikTok.
Figure 1 This photo shows the news talking about banning TikTok from Fox News and CNN
Ethics Case Controversy
In August of 2018, the app called Musical.ly which was taken over by the Chinese company called ByteDance decided to change Musical.ly into the now popular TikTok. (Influencer Market, 2020) By doing this, they moved all the Musical.ly users over to TikTok and turned an app that was mainly about lip syncing to songs into something much more powerful. Overall, TikTok is a video sharing app that allows the creators to make a 15 or 60 second video about whatever they want. They can play music or sounds in the back, add filters and much more. This is different from Musical.ly because that form of the app was focused more on lip Synching to songs, where TikTok is a much more broad platform, where you can sing to music, but also do other things such as share information about your business, talk about politics, make funny clips with fun filters, and so much more. Another feature that they added when they switched over was the ability to react to other people’s clips and share your reaction side by side with the original video. The app has reported 500 million monthly active users and it has been downloaded 80 million times. Another thing that makes this app so popular is the fact that many celebrities have chosen to use this app, for example in the article they talk about Jimmy Fallon being one of the people interested in the app and he used it to start challenges that other people can try to do themselves for fun, which is now something that is widely popular and it seems like there is a new challenge every day. So there is currently many influencers using this app for millions of people to see.
According to (Yurong, 2020) “In July, the Trump Administration officially signaled a potential ban on the company in the U.S., alleging concerns over national security because of the company's Chinese ties.” However, they also say that this was not the first time that TikTok had been involved in issues of national security. In late 2019 the CFIUS investigated TikTok. In the article by the Washington post, they explain in depth more about why this social media app is such an issue in the eyes of the US government. They go over the security and privacy concerns and point out that they collect more data than some other popular platforms. They are worried about locational data and data on children that TikTok have that they are worried could pose a threat. The government is worried that the Chinese government could use its “2017 national intelligence law” to demand the data from the 100 million US TikTok users. Another thing that they are worried about in the theme of national security is the algorithm which is what decides what videos you see on your for you page, they are concerned that this idea of the Chinese policy of “military-civil fusion” could potentially transfer this AI technology over to the Chinese government. (Danzman, 2020)
In another article by CNN, they share some other reasons that TikTok is a national security threat. Some of the members of the government such as Chuck Schumer (Senate Minority Leader) as well as Tom Cotton (Arkansas Republican Sen.) called for the intelligence community to take a look into the risks that may be associated with this application. The article says that TikTok states that these claims are “unfounded” and that TikTok had recently hired an American CEO and claimed that they have never given any of the users data to the Chinese government and that even if they were asked to, they would not. However, the worry is that the company that owns TikTok, ByteDance could be forced into handing over user data. There is the argument that even if China was looking into TikTok, it may not really be any use to them. It says that even if TikTok was able to collect the type of data that would be useful to China’s government, there is still not a guarantee that they could be giving access to it. This article also goes over some security flaws with TikTok that can also be seen as concerning, some user information can be changed, privacy settings can be changed and they could even post videos and get some information about the users. Another issue this article brings up is that some workers of TikTok have said that they were pressured to interfere with videos that relates to politics. They have also become a major platform for misleading speech which is something else that they fear. (Fung, 2020)
Figure 2 Shows the TikTok logo
Issued on August 6th, 2020 Donald Trump has declared an Executive Order in regard to information and communications technology and services supply chain, which he later says that this order is due to one app in particular, TikTok. He says that it is causing threats to national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the united states. He says This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.” So he shares exactly what the risks of this app are. He also says that for many places such as Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration and US Armed Forces have banned the use of TikTok on government phones.
Finally, the Washington Post says on September 23rd, 2020 that a deal has been made that would hopefully solve the issue of national security. They said, “On Friday, the U.S. government announced that it would pull the popular video-sharing app from U.S.-based app stores. The next day, President Trump announced a deal that seemed to give TikTok a reprieve, by partnering in the United States with Oracle and Walmart.” (Danzman, 2020)
Figure 3 Shows the relation to TikTok and the Chinese Brand ByteDance
In this situation, the stakeholders are, The United States Government because there is a national security risk that could happen, which would have an impact on them, as well as the mention of the issues with the elections, so if TikTok were to be giving out information to the Chinese government, it would impact them in a negative way. However in their case, banning TikTok would not be a good thing for them as well because many the users who are using this app as an important platform will be upset because the government is taking away this from them. So unless they could come up with a solution other than letting information being given out or banning the app, they will be in a very bad place. The American people because they are very interested in this app which is shown by the number of active users, many people use this app as a platform and it impacts them because if the app is banned by the government, they lose this platform. This is bad for the users because their information would be given out to someone they didn’t approve of, or they get something they love taken away, so unless they can find a way to fix this, they are also in a bad spot within this situation. Within the American people I would like to be a little more specific and mention the small businesses that use this app as a platform as well as the celebrities who use this as a platform as well. It is an easy way for these influencers to get messages across to all types of people who use the app, so that will have an impact on them as well. Another stake holder would be the company ByteDance because this app could have been banned to all of America which would have had a negative impact on their company because they would be losing a significant amount of their users and something cool about this app that everyone appreciated was that it was a great way to get in touch with people all over the world, and if the US cannot participate, that would severely impact them. Finally, I would like to mention the American people as a whole, and I mean everyone in the whole country because national security is an issue that has an impact on everyone within the country. Regardless of if you are a user of the app, if the app is causing issues with national security, then that has an impact on everyone. So when it comes to thinking how the app should proceed, everyone in the country, not just the users of the app, should be taken into consideration.
Individualism in ethics states a “business’s actions should maximize profits for the owners of the business, but do so within the law” (Salazar, 2014) In this case of TikTok and the security scandal I think that the important thing to think about from this perspective is the idea of “within the law”. President Trump was concerned with the fact that the owners of TikTok were going to share the information from the US users, which is why he was considering banning the app. Earlier, I had mentioned that “The government is worried that the Chinese government could use its “2017 national intelligence law” to demand the data from the 100 million US TikTok users” (Danzman, 2020) . Because the Chinese government has a law in place, that could require them to hand over the information, technically if they were asked to hand it over that would be within the law. However, if they were asked to hand over the information and refused to give it up, then they would be breaking the law. If they were to give out this information, then the US would ban TikTok, which would be bad for their business because they have a lot of users who are in the United States.
Due to the fact that they sold TikTok over to the US companies, Oracle and Walmart, the issue of TikTok having to give out information to stay within the law was mostly solved, however, some of TikTok is partly owned by ByteDance, which some of the articles said that Donald Trump was still not fully supportive of the app and still has concerns. Overall, the main worry in this case is that they were potentially going to hand out US users information, which for the Chinese would be within the law, but because that would cause the US to ban the app, it would not be what it best when it comes to maximizing profits if they were to lose all of the US.
Utilitarianism ethics perspective states that “Business actions should aim to maximize the happiness in the long run for all conscious beings that are affected by the business action” (Salazar, 2014) In this case, the maximum happiness would be the piece of mind for the users to use the app and be able to use this as a platform for whatever they like, without having to worry that there is going to be a national security issue because of the app. It is also in the apps best interest to still have all of the US users because a lot of the users come from the US. Since this is such a widely popular app right now, people do not want to have it banned, and the owners of the company do not want to see the app lose a lot of its users. So the best case for this situation would be for the security threat to be diminished so that everyone, including the app owners, the US government and the apps over 100 million users, may use and run the app in a safe way that will not impact the security of their country. The users also trust that their personal information is not being used for anything other than the outlines purposes of the application. If the users were to find out that their personal information was being sold or shared with someone that they did not approve of, that would not be in their best interest and they would not be happy about this. If the US government began having issues with China because of the information being share from this app, that would not be in the best interest of the government, which would have a negative impact on the government, but also the citizens of the US, regardless of if they use the app or not. If the company found out that TikTok was being banned by the whole country (US), then that would not be the best thing for them because a large population of the apps users would be gone, making it not the best move from a business stand point. So overall, Utilitarianism point of view would say that the maximum happiness in this case would be to find a way to fully diminish any national security threat to the US.
The Kantianism prospective says that one should “always act in a way that respect and honor individuals and their choices. Don’t lie, cheat, manipulate or harm others to get your way. Rather, use informed and rational consent from all parties.” (Salazar, 2014). Kantianism would not approve of what is going on with TikTok and the ByteDance company because they specifically mention that you should honor individuals and their choices, however, by potentially giving out personal information to someone they have not authorized, is definitely not respecting the individual. It also says to not harm others or lie, or cheat or anything of that nature, and by giving away information that is personal and could impact the national security of a country, is not a honorable and rational choice. Kant would also want them to be respecting the choices of people, and by not giving them the choice to keep their information safe, they are not following and respecting the law of Kantianism by any means. However, I also wanted to add, in this case, the US government also may be going agiasnt Kant because they were planning to ban the app for everyone in the country, which many people did not want, and did not understand what their fun 60 second videos had to do with national security. This is going agiasnt what Kant says because Kant states that you have to respect the individual and their choices, and if they want to have the app, they should be able to make that choice on their own and the US government should respect that choice.
The virtue theory wants everyone to “act so as to embody a variety of virtuous or good character traits and so as to avoid vicious or bad character traits” (Salazar, 2014). Some of the good traits that the company used in this case were honesty, in many of the articles summarized in this paper, they specifically said that they thought the accusations were uncalled for and untrue. They proved to be honest in their saying of this by deciding to sell the company to the Walmart and Oracle. That was a rational choice to make that overall, was going to benefit all of the stakeholders in this case. Sometimes in cases of businesses, they can be greedy, dishonest or selfish in order to get what they want and in the case of TikTok, because they were able to make this deal, which like I mentioned has a benefit to all parties, is a good thing. If they had given out the user information like they were being accused of, then that would not be a good trait, so they should not be a company that is trusted with your personal information. As users, when we are putting our information into these apps when we sign up and when we use it, we expect that the company holding this information will not be dishonest with it, by sharing it with people we do not approve of or use it in ways that are wrong or illegal. Some of the main virtues that the owners of TikTok should have specifically to be able to ensure trust within their users are, courage, honesty, temperance and justice. All of those things and more are wildly important when running a company because to be a good company, you want to be trustworthy. And in this case, TikTok was and potentially still it not something that people can just blindly trust anymore. The accusations, if they were true or not, still bring up the issue that they are not trust worthy and there for are not a virtuous business. In order to make their business better, they need to look at what their traits are and fix them in order to be able to ensure to their users that their information is safe and that they are not going to be risking their security within their country in order to use the application.
In my personal opinion, I think that the company ByteDance, would be in the wrong if they were to give out the users information because that would not be a respectable choice because none of the users came onto this app to want to worry about their personal information being share to the point that it causes issues with national security. I think that because this app is used by such a large range of people that TikTok should be respectful of the people who have chosen to use this platform and not be sharing their personal information. However, the US planning to ban the app all together, I do not think was a smart or fair choice as well. Because so many people use this as a platform for many different reasons, I think that getting rid of the app for something that is at this point in time only theoretical, and no major harm has been caused would be very hasty. In some of the articles I read, it seemed like the national security threat was not the only reason that President Trump wanted the app shut down. Things like the algorithm causing issues with things being posted about the 2020 election seemed to be an issue in the Presidents eyes.
I think that the owners of the app could potentially have been taking advantage of the diverse and large platform they have created with TikTok, which is wrong, but by selling to Walmart and Oracle, making them the majority owners, was the right thing to do to prove that they were not out to give anyone’s information away. I think that they were in a tough spot because of the law mentioned earlier, if their government asked for the TikTok information, they would have to give it up, but by selling it to someone who is not controlled by the Chinese government was the right thing to do and the best choice across the board.
As a whole, I think that threatening to ban the app was a sad thing because there are so many users who have benefited from this app. For example, many small business owners were able to share their products without having to pay for ads, and reach people not only all over the country, but all over the world. So it had a major benefit to those smaller businesses. Some other people that it had an impact on were people who are minors. On this app many minors who still want to be able to find a way to participate in US government, but cannot legally vote yet, were able to share thoughts, information, and opinions on voting. It is a great way for young people to get involved and informed about our country. However, the list of ways it has benefited people is not short by any means. However, I had mentioned earlier, we cannot just think of the users of the app, but the whole country, because people should not have to worry about their national security at risk. So, I understand, but I think that there could have been a different way of handling the situation. But overall, by selling to American companies it basically solves the problem. But if there is issues with this app, how can we as users and Americans be sure that our information is not being given out, because Walmart and Oracle do not own 100% of the business. Because of this issue, I wonder if there is a different way that they could handle this app, other than just having an American company partially take over.
Company Action Plan
When it comes to handling this TikTok National Security threat in the way that is best for all of the stakeholders. First of all, if we look at the company Byte Dance, they should be taking a look at the way they are running their company to see if there is any way that they can make sure no one is questioning any of their morals. To do this, some things that they can do is, potentially take less information from the users. If there is not much information coming from the users, the information they have may be useless if the Chinese government asks for it. Another thing that they could do as a company is become less of a Chinese company if they want to have their apps and other products used around the country, they could do this by finding representatives from the countries they want the app used in, so all the countries have an inside idea of what is going on with their apps. Another thing that they could do, is decided to not share their products outside of the country. This would not be ideal from a business standpoint, however, it would stop any accusations that are risen about the risks of national security in other countries. In this specific situation of TikTok, they did sell part of the app to Walmart and Oracle, however, this is just one of the things the company owns, so there could be other issues that arise within the company specifically. By selling TikTok though, the company does still own a small portion and I did mention earlier, that if the US government is still worried about the app giving out information, something that they could do in this specific situation is to sell the rights to the app, so that a fully American company could buy the idea of the app and recreate it, so there is full control and no need to worry about the Chinese government getting involved in any way. It has been made clear that none of the stakeholders would be in the best interest with the app shutting down or getting banned, however, just simply adding in American countries, does not really stop someone from giving out information in secret. But if the app was something new, with the same features and ideas, then that would be the best for all the stakeholders because the owners of TikTok would make a profit, the new company that remakes the app would make a profit and the US people and government would have piece of mind when it comes to using the app they love. It would be a lot of work to make this happen, however, if they want this app to not be banned, shutdown or being accused of stealing and giving away information, this is one of the only things they can to do give piece of mind.
Overall, this TikTok situation, was handled to some extent due to its sale with the American companies Oracle and Walmart. However, it has been made clear by the President that he is still not fully convinced that this is not still an issue. However, as of right now, there does not seem to be any immediate national security threat now that it is mainly owned by American companies. This whole situation was not ethically moral and there was some serious issues in the way that the company was running the app. So to conclude, there is many ways that ByteDance would better handle the situation with TikTok and make the popular app safe for everyone to use
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Trump, D. (2020, August 6). Executive Order on Addressing the Threat Posed by TikTok. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-addressing-threat-posed-tiktok/
Yurong, C. (2020, September 24). Timeline: How TikTok struggled with Trump's political attacks. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-09-24/Timeline-How-TikTok-struggled-with-Trump-s-political-attacks-TYnT698NzO/index.html