February 17, 2023
February 17, 2023

With one billion active users across more than 150 countries, TikTok is by many measures the world’s most successful video app. Nearly one in three Americans have an account. It is the most downloaded app since 2021. And like virtually all of social media, user privacy concerns abound. But TikTok adds an extra layer. Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, there are worries that U.S. data could be transmitted to China’s government, despite assurances from the company that it is not. Those concerns prompted President Joe Biden to ban TikTok from government phones. More than half of U.S. states have similar controls in place. But with increased tensions between Beijing and Washington, and mounting questions of Chinese surveillance, some are calling for the U.S. to go further and ban the technology outright. Those supporting such a move often to point to a ban on another Chinese tech giant, Huawei, as an effective means of limiting China’s influence and potentially extractive technological efforts. Those who argue against it say a ban would essentially undermine what has become an important tool in the video marketplace, and that such efforts are not only political motivated, but are also easily bypassed. In that context, we debate the following: Should the U.S. Ban TikTok?

This debate was live recorded on Friday, February 17th at 2:15 PM EST as an exclusive virtual debate for subscribers.

02:15 PM Friday, February 17, 2023
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Background (6 RESOURCES)

Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Source: New York Times
By Glenn S. Gerstell
Thursday, February 2, 2023
Source: Vox
By Sara Morrison
Wednesday, December 14, 2022
Source: The Hill
By Addy Bink and Nexstar Media Wire
Friday, October 14, 2022
Source: The Washington Post
By Drew Harwell
Wednesday, January 11, 2023
Source: CNN
By Vanessa Yurkevich
  • 00:00:05

    John Donvan

    Hi, everybody, and welcome to Intelligence Squared. I’m John Donvan. And this debate is about the app that a lot of people say should be banned in the United States. I am talking about TikTok, the social media app that comes out of China and that has 94 million users in the United States, and apparently growing. It is the China connection that is causing the controversy and the calls for making it illegal, which are actually coming from both Democrats and Republicans. Finally, apparently something they can agree on. But is a ban actually justified? Can a social media app really be such a threat to national security? And if so, how does that operate? And what is the evidence for that or against it? Well, those are some of the matters that we’ll be looking at as we ask our debaters to take on this question, should the US ban TikTok?

  • 00:00:57

    So, let’s meet our debaters. Answering “yes” in answer to that question, Senior Fellow and Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, former Deputy Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and a returning multi-time debater with us, Kori Schake. Kori, thanks so much for joining us yet again.

  • 00:01:14

    Kori Schake

    It’s a great pleasure.

  • 00:01:16

    John Donvan

    And answering “no” to the question, arguing that TikTok should not be banned, Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy, Co-Founder and Director of the Internet Governance Project, Milton Mueller. Milton, thanks so much for joining us.

  • 00:01:29

    Milton Mueller

    Happy to be here.

  • 00:01:30

    John Donvan

    That’s… It’s great to have you. We just wanted to hear your voice, so thank you very much for that. All right, so let’s get to it. We want each of you to take a couple of minutes to explain to us why your answer to this question, should TikTok be banned, is a yes or a no. Kori, you’re up first. You’re answering yes, it should be banned. Tell us why.

  • 00:01:48

    Kori Schake

    Yeah. I think there are two concerns about TikTok. The first is the data being amassed and potentially used by surveillance, say China. And second, the potential for it to be a propaganda tool by what its, uh, artificial intelligence and algorithm bounce into our feeds, since it’s a major media platform.

  • 00:02:11

    So on the first, the data amassed. The problem isn’t TikTok. The problem is the Chinese government because there’s no such thing as a Chinese company that’s truly independent of the government. And no matter where the data is collected or stored, China’s data law applies extra-territorially. So it will have access to data collected and stored anywhere. And whereas Apple can deny the FBI access to data and take it to court, no Chinese company could do that to the Chinese government. And in fact, Apple can’t do that to the Chinese government. So, the increasing risk of the potential use that the Chinese government could put the data to that, that TikTok makes possible. And TikTok doesn’t just make possible access to dance videos. It actually mines data from other apps, including personal contacts, photos, GPS locations, online purchasing, viewing habits, and even keyboard swipes. So, I think there is a legitimate concern.

  • 00:03:22

    And it’s, as you rightly pointed out, John, it’s a bipartisan concern. It’s not just Republicans who are worried about this. It’s Democratic senators like Warner of Virginia, Bennet of Colorado, and Schatz of Hawaii. It’s the director of the FBI and Britain’s MI5. And it’s the Biden Justice Department. So, so I think that’s one concern.

  • 00:03:47

    The second concern is as people increasingly use it as a media platform, China has the ability to censor and boost content on it, which it did during the Hong Kong protests and which it does over Xinjiang repression. And what, what TikTok has said is, “But we won’t do it anymore.” And I don’t think we ought to take that as a… as a definitive answer. I think we’re right to be concerned about the potential for that kind of manipulation, especially since, uh, the, the media platform BuzzFeed got their hands on audio of internal conversations where they’re talking about having and using access to everything. So, I think there is the basis for legitimate concern about Chinese government, manipulation of media content, and collection and use of data.

  • 00:04:47

    John Donvan

    Thanks very much, Kori. Now, let’s hear from Milton. Milton, again, you’re taking the position that the US should not ban TikTok. Tell us why.

  • 00:04:55

    Milton Mueller

    Right. And I’m very happy to have a debate because we haven’t had one before. Uh, there- there’s a, a reinforcing, uh, sort of echo chamber in Washington in which people, uh, who are only concerned about foreign policy tell them that TikTok is this threat. But, uh, it’s never been backed up with any evidence.

  • 00:05:14

    So let’s talk first about the problem of Chinese censorship, right? It’s very obvious, uh, to anybody who actually uses TikTok that it is not exporting Chinese censorship. And, uh, Kori talked about the, uh, Xinjiang protest. Well, I can find… in, in a matter of seconds I can search TikTok and find 20 or 30 videos about the repression of Xinjiang people on TikTok. In fact, one of the most interesting and, uh, useful sources of information about the COVID-19 protests that I found, uh, in November were, were coming from TikTok.

  • 00:05:56

    So, Chin-… uh, China is not exporting its, its, um, censorship through TikTok. And why is that? Well, it’s because TikTok actually is an independent company. It has segregated its operations into a global app and a domestic app. And of course the domestic app is heavily censored, but the global app is not. And what we have to understand here is that when we talk about banning TikTok, we are banning the voices of 90 million Americans. We’re not banning Chinese voices. TikTok is user-generated content. And the people that are expressing themselves on TikTok are in fact millions of Americans. And it’s really kind of depressing to hear the foreign policy establishment in the United States, uh, basically giving in to the idea that repression and authoritarianism are more successful and protect our security. When in fact, America succeeds and America has won worldwide by being open and by being free. Americans can be resilient to multiple sources of information from, from different countries and different places and different perspectives. And that’s why we succeed as a global exporter of information services.

  • 00:07:20

    But what about the espionage issue? Well, this is really pretty crazy because there is no extremely valuable s- secret information that you would get, even assuming, which is not true, that TikTok is just turning over all of its information to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. This is simply a false assertion. Um, but if it were true, what would they get? Well, they would get a lot of records of what videos people are posting, who likes them, and some of the identifying information of those people. But guess what? You can get that same information by subscribing to TikTok and, and looking at all the videos and scraping that information and using various kinds of opensource tools that will give you that same information. And you know what? You can do the same thing with LinkedIn. You can do the same thing with Instagram. You can do the same thing with, uh, Twitter. So, this is not an argument against TikTok. This is an argument against all social media. And if the point of this argument is that you, you know, the national security agency, shouldn’t be putting its meetings on vi-… on TikTok, or that companies that develop intellectual property shouldn’t be, uh, putting videos of it up on TikTok, well, yeah, of course. If you’re talking about sensitive information, don’t put it on social media.

  • 00:08:46

    I think the big problem here, just to conclude, is that we’re assuming that any private Chinese company, even if it’s associated with global markets, is inherently a tool of the Chinese Communist Party. And this is just not true. TikTok is, uh… The investment capital behind TikTok is American and Japanese, as well as Chinese. The entrepreneurs want to export their service. And the question we have to ask is, do we want to create a closed, fragmented internet in which national boundaries dictate the flow of information? And I don’t think we do.

  • 00:09:25

    John Donvan

    Thanks, Milton. All right, we’re gonna move into a conversation now. And just reflecting on what I think I’ve heard the two of you say, um, Kori Schake, I think your, your essential argument is that the basically the fundamental connection to China makes TikTok untrustworthy. That, supposed legal barriers to their use of the data will just… will just crumble under the well of the Communist Chinese Party to go ahead and use them. And, that there’s a long track record of China having its hand in the… in the pots of, uh, lots of companies and there’s no reason to suspect that TikTok would be secure from that. And of course, I think you’re also arguing that China would have the motive, since they have these computers in the pocket of so many millions of Americans to go ahead and use them.

  • 00:10:05

    And Milton, I think I hear you saying that you feel that all of this is a bit of a moral panic. That, TikTok is a company that’s much more interested in profits than it is in political power, and that that guides it. And you are also challenging some of the assumptions of just what could be technologically done with the data that TikTok is able to collect.

  • 00:10:27

    I wanna point out that as you’ve both have pointed out, TikTok in China is diff-… a different experience from TikTok in the rest of the world. That, it’s something of a separate operation. So that, uh, one [inaudible]

  • 00:10:39

    … we, we don’t wanna confuse the repression used on the application in China with the rest of the world because that’s part of why this is a bit of controversy.

  • 00:10:48

    I’ve hear… I hear two areas that I would like to talk through. The first one would be, let’s continue to assess what you both say is the danger or the lack of danger. After we’ve done that, I wanna move on to, what would be the implications of a ban on TikTok? What would happen as a result of that? But Kori, I wanna first take to you. Um, Milton’s argument, uh, quoting him, that in terms of the espionage risk, he’s saying, “There really is no secret information that you would get from the users of TikTok. Therefore, the danger is diminished.” What’s your response to that?

  • 00:11:22

    Kori Schake

    Well, I’m not an expert on either espionage or technology. But the director of the FBI and the director of Britain’s MI5 are experts on both of those things and they are persuaded it’s a serious problem and are concerned enough that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States has not, um… is considering banning TikTok. So, I, I think actually the fact that espionage is a concern of the FBI on TikTok ought to give us pause and ought not to validate just waving away the concern.

  • 00:12:15

    John Donvan

    I’m John Donvan. This is Intelligence Squared US. We’ll hear more from our debaters right after this.

  • 00:12:42

    Welcome back. I’m John Donvan, and this is Intelligence Squared US. Let’s jump right back into our discussion.

  • 00:12:54

    Milton Mueller

    Well, I would, uh, if I could answer that.

  • 00:12:56

    John Donvan

    Sure.

  • 00:12:56

    Milton Mueller

    Chris Wray is, is not an expert on cy- cybersecurity. He-

  • 00:13:00

    John Donvan

    FBI director, just to clarify.

  • 00:13:02

    Milton Mueller

    Yeah. The, the FBI director is a political appointee and he is, uh, touting a political line when he says that. And particularly, he, he complained about influence operation, showing that he really doesn’t understand, uh, the nature of the information environment in the United States. Um, uh, I don’t know about the MI5 in Britain, but I don’t think that Britain is currently debating banning TikTok.

  • 00:13:29

    This, this is really a political case, uh, a foreign policy case. So there are people who believe in decoupling from China, and they’re going to interpret any Chinese company, any economic connection between the US and China as a threat. And, uh, this is exactly what I’m challenging. I’m… I, I think TikTok is a perfect example of how a company can come in from a foreign a- and introduce competition an- and valuable services into the American market. They can provide a, a, a form of platform communication that Americans love and benefit from. And, uh, they can create economic value. And there’s really no evidence that this is harming the United States.

  • 00:14:11

    John Donvan

    Kori?

  • 00:14:12

    Kori Schake

    So, um, it does… I agree with Milton that it’s fabulous proof that the large social media companies don’t have monopolistic control, that, that upstarts can upend and make a place for themselves. I also agree with him that this is a great thing. People have fun with it and it’s gonna be awful that we have to shut it down. But what I think has happened is that, you know, it’s not just [inaudible]

  • 00:14:48

    red in tooth and claw China hawks who are worried about this exposure. It’s also people who had a mutually beneficial vision for a China that’s strong, prosperous, and uninterrupted access of globalization. But what we are coming to slowly realize is that that’s not the China that we’re looking at.

  • 00:15:16

    And I think the discussion about TikTok is gonna mirror the discussion about Huawei. Where, all of us initially saw the commercial benefits and the costs advantages and the, uh, access advantages, and then began to really worry about the way the Chinese government was manipulating those things for espionage purposes. And I think that’s where we are on TikTok now. 19 separate American states have come to that conclusion. The Federal Government’s come to that conclusion. Uh, the Department of Defense i- is no longer allowing TikTok as a… access on its portals. I think we’re slowly grudgingly going to have to foreclose something that has been wonderful and fun, but unfortunately has really important downsides.

  • 00:16:10

    John Donvan

    So, so, Kori, you’re making what, uh, [inaudible]

  • 00:16:13

    a- an appeal to authority. The fact that, that governments and the Federal Government, the FBI, are all warning that this is a problem and they’re very serious about it. And Milton’s argument is basically, they are wrong. That, they have not really analyzed i- in… the, the logic of the decision. And one of his points that he made was that, if, if TikTok were to begin feeding Chinese propaganda into the algorithm, teenagers are not gonna watch that stuff. That, TikTok would, would kill itself off by doing that sort of manipulation. And I, I, I can see the logic of that argument and I just want you to address it.

  • 00:16:54

    Kori Schake

    Yeah. Well, I too think, as Thomas Jefferson argued, that the only repository for power is the people themselves. But, um, I don’t think… I don’t think it’s explicit, uh, inclusion of information that’s the problem. It’s the potential for exclusion of information, which we actually saw in the cases of Uyghur detentions in Xinjiang. And we actually saw during the Hong Kong protest on the part of TikTok. Moreover, the malevolent use of information, which TikTok has now admitted to in December, of its employees tracking and trying to, um, expose journalists, uh, using information on the platform. I think those are all legitimate concerns.

  • 00:17:46

    John Donvan

    Mm-hmm. Okay, Milton, please.

  • 00:17:48

    Milton Mueller

    Okay. So, again, we have disposed of the, the, uh, uh, myth that, uh, you can’t see protests on TikTok. Uh, that is not true (laughs). Go there and look. Go search for Uyghur repression on TikTok. You will find-

  • 00:18:05

    John Donvan

    So that’s, that’s, that’s exter- external to China TikTok. In China you would-

  • 00:18:08

    Milton Mueller

    Of course. Of course.

    John Donvan

    … not be able to see that. Okay.

  • 00:18:08

    Milton Mueller

    Of course.

  • 00:18:09

    John Donvan

    Just wanna be clear.

  • 00:18:10

    Milton Mueller

    Um, secondly, uh, the assertion that CFIUS is considering banning TikTok is also untrue. CFIUS is a, a secret committee that decides, uh, about acquisitions. And so what they’re looking at is whether, uh, TikTok, uh, can be acquired, uh, which is something that happened five years ago, um, and clearly is… it’s fairly political. But they are not considering a ban. And in fact, a ban is probably unconstitutional for very good reasons. And if you look at why, uh, President Trump’s initial attempt to ban TikTok was overturned by the courts in 2020, it’s because this claim to national security cannot be used to impose censorship on the American people. And that’s exactly what Kori seems to be proposing. That, we can just have a government that decides what sources of foreign information we will or will not be exposed to. And the interesting thing about this is that you are in fact… If we’re in competition with China, you are surrendering. You’re saying, “China’s approach to government is right and our liberal free democratic system is wrong. We cannot have people freely discussing ideas, freely exposed to ideas. We’ve got to have the government tell them what they can and cannot see.” Now, let’s talk about, about that.

  • 00:19:30

    John Donvan

    Wa- wait, wait. Bef-… Hold that thought. You just-

  • 00:19:32

    Milton Mueller

    Okay.

    John Donvan

    … laid a fairly, fairly serious charge at Kori’s feet and I just wanna… In the charge that she’s advocating censorship.

  • 00:19:40

    Milton Mueller

    Yeah.

    John Donvan

    And, and an illiberal response to what China’s got out there in that app. Kori, I just wanna let you respond to that.

  • 00:19:47

    Kori Schake

    So, free societies always struggle with, um… in times of potential conflict and with adversaries over how much they should be permitted to use the tools of an openness of free societies for malign purposes. Americans are not gonna fail to get information if TikTok alone is excluded from our media space. There are plenty of other ways Americans get information. Uh, so I don’t think it is true that banning TikTok because we have legitimate concerns about espionage and about the censorship TikTok will impose means the United States becomes an unfree society.

  • 00:20:38

    Milton Mueller

    Ca- can we just get a direct answer to this. Are you… You’re saying that TikTok is now engaging in censorship? Or that they might engage in censorship?

  • 00:20:47

    Kori Schake

    In both the case, uh, of the Hong Kong protest and in information about Uyghur detentions in Xinjiang. It’s true that they did not completely exclude it. But they did tamp down on availability of that information. If you track-

  • 00:21:09

    Milton Mueller

    W- w- what evidence is there for that?

  • 00:21:11

    Kori Schake

    … the way that information… the frequency of that information-

  • 00:21:13

    Milton Mueller

    Really?

  • 00:21:14

    Kori Schake

    … on other social media plat-

  • 00:21:16

    Milton Mueller

    Did you… did you do a study of, of the content distribution on TikTok? Do you have, uh, data about that? I, I would submit that that’s just plain false. There is no export of Chinese censorship. There are no blockages of search terms in TikTok, uh, global. TikTok global. It’s just not happening. And you can find anything you want. And I could record a, a statement tomorrow, I can dress up as Winnie-the-Pooh and say, “I’m Xi Jinping.” I can dress up as Mao Tse-tung and say, “I’m a mass murderer.” All of that can happen and does happen on TikTok. It’s just not true. So what you’re ultimately saying is that TikTok could possibly, because we fear it, uh, start censoring or manipulating their algorithm. And my answer to that is, TikTok is making tons of money because they, through their algorithm, feed people the videos that they want to see. And that’s why they’re making tons of money and that’s why they’re competing with Facebook. That’s why Facebook is spending lots of money in Washington to promote the censorship or, uh, banning of TikTok. Uh, i-… They’re a successful competitor.

  • 00:22:27

    John Donvan

    A- and yet… and yet, Milton, they have sinned in the terms in which we’re discussing. They, they, they, they put… they, they searched out the location of a set of journalists from BuzzFeed who were… who, who broke the news using audio recordings of leadership of TikTok discussing the fact that in fact they did have access to and controlled the flow of data in the United States, although they had claimed that they hadn’t. And then, they essentially put something of an espionage tail on these journalists by trying to find out where they were. Their purpose was to find out where the leak was coming from. But nevertheless, these are the kinds of things TikTok were saying that they would not do. And those things came out of China.

  • 00:23:07

    Milton Mueller

    Now, hold on a se-… No, no. That’s wrong. Okay? That’s a factual… This is the kind of conflation that happens so often. So, that says, “Oh, they’re leaking data to the Chinese government.” No. This was internal data. This was reporters spying on the internal operations of TikTok.

  • 00:23:27

    John Donvan

    Right. Which

    [inaudible]

  • 00:23:28

    something that-

  • 00:23:28

    Milton Mueller

    And TikTok was using their-

  • 00:23:30

    John Donvan

    (laughs) I don’t mean to be debating you.

  • 00:23:32

    Milton Mueller

    … employee systems… th- their, their employee systems to track the employees who are responsible for the leaks. So, how is this different, let’s say, from the investigation of the US Supreme Court to find out who leaked the abortion decision? Or how is this different from Facebook’s attempt to find out, uh, who leaks their internal information to anybody else? This is not an espionage issue. This is an internal organizational issue. You may agree or disagree with what TikTok global did in that case.

  • 00:24:03

    John Donvan

    Let’s, let’s focus-

  • 00:24:03

    Milton Mueller

    But it has nothing to… has nothing to do with the foreign policy or espionage question.

  • 00:24:07

    John Donvan

    Let’s assume… let’s assu-… let’s assume your, your, your correction of the facts on that one. There’s the BuzzFeed’s report was still about meetings in China about the Chinese members of the company having access to the data. And Kori is arguing that number, number one, they’re saying that, that, that that’s not stuff that they have access to. And number two, Kori is arguing that it’s just gonna be across the street to get that data to the Chinese government once the communist party says, “We want this stuff.”

  • 00:24:34

    Milton Mueller

    Okay. My answer to that is, number one, the… of course the people who are engineering an algorithm that tries to figure out how to feed people the da-… the videos that they want are looking at the data about how people use TikTok. Of course they are. The question is, does that get to the government? Why should it get to the government? Why, why would they release that information? And why would they, um, uh, undermine their, their, uh, quality of their algorithm by, by allowing the Chinese Communist Party to manipulate it?

  • 00:25:07

    Kori Schake

    So the answer is that it’s Chinese law. That, they are required to provide that information to the government when the government wants it.

  • 00:25:15

    Milton Mueller

    This is actually another kind of myth that has been promulgated by, uh, people in AEI in particular. Uh, that watch… What’s the, the law that you’re referring to? It’s the National Intelligence Law, isn’t it? And there’s a very vague statement that you can dig out and the translation into English that says, uh, “People in China need to cooperate with the intelligence agencies.” And in that respect, it’s no different than any national law regarding, uh, the rights, uh, of the intelligence agencies to request information. And furthermore, if you read the section below this one, it says that, “Chinese intelligence agencies will never violate, uh, human rights.” Right?

  • 00:26:03

    Kori Schake

    (laughs)

  • 00:26:04

    Milton Mueller

    Now… Yeah. Yeah. None of… We don’t believe that one. And we, you know, don’t necessarily believe the first one either. It’s just, like, this is a very, uh, selective use of the intelligence law. And if you can say, “Oh, this little phrase in this section eight says that every piece of data generated by a Chinese company is turned over to the Chinese Communist Party,'” uh, then why can’t you also literally interpret section nine, which says that they will never do that in a way that violates human rights?

  • 00:26:39

    John Donvan

    All right. I wanna… I wanna bring in a few, uh, fellow questioners to the conversation in just a moment. But Kori, I wanted you to respond to the point Milton made in the opening, that, putting aside the censorship part of it, but that, um, there are 90 million, 94 million users of TikTok in the United States who seem to love the experience of TikTok, and that all goes away. Um, your assessment of that loss? Is it… is it worth the price? Is, is shutting down and getting security worth that price?

  • 00:27:12

    Kori Schake

    Unfortunately, yes. We do actually genuinely need to be concerned about Chinese espionage and Chinese media manipulation.

  • 00:27:21

    John Donvan

    And, Milton, your response to that?

  • 00:27:22

    Milton Mueller

    The average American has 40 apps on their phone. We have cable television. We have newspapers. We talk to our friends. We read websites. There are thousands of websites offering diverse sources of information. This is what the military calls the information environment. The American information environment is extremely diverse. And this idea that one app, that the Chinese manipulate one app and the republic will fall, I don’t know what to say about this. I mean, my PhD is in communications. I have studied the way media affects society for 40 years. I c-… I just can’t believe that anybody would take seriously the idea that, uh, one app is going to bring about the downfall of the republic.

  • 00:28:12

    John Donvan

    All right. I wanna bring into the conversation now Emily Baker-White. Emily is a… is a journalist. So I, I referred… I referred, uh, to you not by name when I talked about the BuzzFeed story, um, where, um, y- you and other journalists had written about these recordings of the, uh, officials in China, uh, discussing their access to the data. And once that information came out, um, the company, uh, admitted that they, they, they looked at pure data to find out where you were in terms of your IP address. They were trying to match you with some of their employees to see if they could catch whoever the leak was. Um, I was corrected, I, I think appropriately, by Milton, i- in saying that this operation was carried out, I believe, in the United States, this decision to track. Is that correct or not?

  • 00:28:55

    Emily Baker-White

    Hi, John. So, what we reported was that the team that spied on me and some of my colleagues was actually a ByteDance team, not a TikTok team. ByteDance is TikTok’s parent company. And that team, like you said, they were trying to figure out who were talking to. They said they weren’t successful in finding that out. But they reported to an executive in China who apparently resigned after the incident was made public. And my understanding is that that team involved both personnel in the United States and in China.

  • 00:29:23

    John Donvan

    Okay. So, uh, we were a little bit both right, Milton and I, on, on this… explaining that situation according to your account. So what is your question?

  • 00:29:29

    Emily Baker-White

    I have a question for each of you. I’ll start with my question for Kori. There are hundreds of apps in the United States that are either owned by Chinese companies or have some employees in China who might be able to access some US user data. If the US banned TikTok, does that mean it also might need to ban, for example, Shein, the fast-fashion company, or Tencent-owned video game League of Legends? I guess the question is, where does it stop? How many companies might the US need to ban in order to maintain a consistent line here?

  • 00:29:58

    Kori Schake

    I think that’s a really important question. And I don’t think the answer is an expansive one. Um, TikTok is… So, you’re right that every Chi-… every Chinese company is at risk this way. Not every Chinese company, uh, is collecting data across applications and of the magnitude that, that TikTok is. So I think TikTok is unique in this area of concern. We don’t have to be as concerned about fashion companies or most kinds of manufacturing. That, we need to take a narrow scope to, uh, preventing the espionage that TikTok uniques gives ByteDance. And as you pointed out, even though TikTok, uh, was saying it wasn’t going to allow Chinese [inaudible]

  • 00:30:54

    companies or the government to collect that information, they did it, in your case.

  • 00:31:07

    John Donvan

  • 00:31:33

    I’m John Donvan. This is Intelligence Squared US. We’ll hear more from our debaters right after this.

    Welcome back to Intelligence Squared US. I’m John Donvan. Let’s get back to our debate.

  • 00:31:39

    Emily Baker-White

    My question to Milton is, you said at the top of the debate that there’s a lot of information that the Chinese government, or anyone, could get from TikTok because people publish their TikToks. They’re public. Anyone can look them up. But there is data that TikTok the company is getting that’s not available to other users on the app. That might be DMs, it might be, as, as in my case, people’s IP addresses, which can give an approximation of their location. So my question is, if ByteDance employees could pull my location out of TikTok to try to monitor my physical location, what’s to stop them from doing that with Chinese dissidents or members of the US Government?

  • 00:32:16

    Milton Mueller

    Well, I would say that anybody who is in a national security-sensitive position or doing national security-sensitive things should not be using any social media app.

  • 00:32:29

    Emily Baker-White

    Would you say the same for academics who are critical of the government side?

  • 00:32:32

    Milton Mueller

    No. I don’t think, uh, that’s necessarily a problem because they’re not n- necessarily cha- challenging the Chinese government in a domestic context, which is really all that they care about. Um, but, um, in terms of IP addresses, uh, your, your… I’m sorry, (laughs) but you’re wrong. Uh, there’s all kinds of ways to track your IP address, uh, uh, and your domain name, uh, queries. And, um, there’s, uh, all kinds of ways to track the routing information that is exchanged by internet service providers on the internet.

  • 00:33:06

    Emily Baker-White

    It seems like what you’re saying is that they could get it anyway from a data broker or something.

  • 00:33:10

    Milton Mueller

    I’m saying that there’s no particular special value that they could get from, from TikTok, yeah. From having internal access commanded, uh, because ByteDance is in Beijing. The- they, you know… In theory, they could do that, but it’s, like, what do they get?

  • 00:33:28

    L- let me, uh, contrast that to what they got by breaking into the office of personnel management, in which they got, uh, hundreds of thousands of security clearance applications from American people in government. Uh, [inaudible]

  • 00:33:45

    (laughs) talk about national security-sensitive information. So, they broke into things and they continue to break into things. That is to say the Chinese military, the Chinese government. There’s no question that they do that. And that the Communist Party is a [inaudible]

  • 00:34:02

    surveillance state and that they are repressive state. I’m just saying we don’t need to imitate that behavior. And we need to protect ourselves in terms of cybersecurity, uh, sensitive resources. But we don’t need to be, uh, censoring and restricting consumer applications in order to protect national security.

  • 00:34:25

    John Donvan

    Uh, I now wanna introduce, uh, uh, Rishi Iyengar from Foreign Policy. Hi, Rishi, thanks for, uh, coming, coming into this, and, uh, we’d love to hear your question.

  • 00:34:33

    Rishi Iyengar

    Thanks for having me, yeah. Um, I have a couple of questions for, for both of you. Um, I’ll, uh, the… My first one is… my first question’s about, uh, US allies. Kori, you briefly mentioned, uh, MI5, uh, but the, the… we haven’t seen a conversation around banning TikTok in… among US allies in the way that we’ve seen in the US. European officials notably have said they will treat TikTok the same way they treat Facebook, or Google, or any other platform [inaudible]

  • 00:35:06

    .

  • 00:35:06

    John Donvan

    Oh, although, Rishi, we haven’t mentioned that it… that southeast Asian countries have taken a harder line. So India has banned TikTok, and others have, to some degree or another, limited. And in, in the neighborhood of China have limited its, uh, its reach. I just wanted to bring that into the conversation.

  • 00:35:19

    Rishi Iyengar

    Sure. Absolutely. And, and with India, uh, I, I would say I, I briefly co- covered that ban. With India, it was in response to sort of an over military conflict on the border and, and a kind of broader, uh, response. But, yeah, that, that point is, uh, is well-taken. But in the… in the current sort of environment, the US seems to be, uh, kind of on its own, uh, in that… in that conversation around specifically banning TikTok, uh, the app. So my question is, what should we… what should we read into the fact that the US is kind of on, on its own? And, and should the US be trying to bring in more allies or kind of talk to more allies in the conversation around banning TikTok in the… e- especially contrasting it with the Huawei situation, which you also mentioned earlier?

  • 00:36:12

    Kori Schake

    Yeah. I think it’s a really important question. Um, you know, there’s this wonderful phrase Theodore Roosevelt uses. He s-… he says at one point that, “When I’m in California, I do not feel I am in the West. California is the West of the West.” And on a lot of these social media and technology issues, the US is the West of the West. And so, we’re at the start of thinking our way through this. I think it was actually set back by the bludgeoning approach that the Trump Administration took, which was, in my judgment, uh, as much protectionist as it was concerns of the kinds we’re talking about now. So, yes, of course, uh, we are gonna want to share the information that we have collected with allies, help them understand why we’re concerned about it, help them understand whether they should be concerned in the ways that we are. And I think we’re just at the start of that process.

  • 00:37:14

    Milton Mueller

    Well, I would say that the, the Huawei example is a good one. We’ve tried to organize a global boycott and, uh, control of Chinese technology companies, uh, that has largely not succeeded, uh, for very good reasons. Which is that, you know, uh… A- and in fact, the, the security risks of a infrastructure provider are massively exceeding those of a… of an app. I’m sure you understand technically why that’s the case.

  • 00:37:44

    But, uh, you know, let’s talk about India, right? I mean, yeah, the Modi A- Administration (laughs) banned, uh, TikTok, but they also banned a BBC documentary critical of Modi, right? Um, and they banning all kinds of things over there. And this is exactly the point I’m making, that this is an authoritarian move that is completely contrary to the American values of a free and open internet, and free expression, and individual rights, and democracy. It’s just not the kinda things that government should be doing. Now, we have responses to foreign disinformation and foreign, uh, influence operations that are enacted by all of the platforms because, in fact, all of the social media platforms have to face these problems of, uh, what they call coordinated inauthentic activity. Which is where a foreign government tries to, uh, manipulate or, or spread disinformation. Uh, but a- again, this is not about, uh, exclusively a concern about TikTok. It’s not exclusively a concern about China. It is a question of, how do we maintain a healthy globalized information environment? And I would submit, I really believe that the American approach of competitive private sector-based content moderation, uh, is much superior to nationwide government-directed bans.

  • 00:39:15

    Rishi Iyengar

    Uh, if I could… if I could just squeeze in another question. A more-

  • 00:39:18

    John Donvan

    Yeah, yeah. Please, go for it.

  • 00:39:19

    Rishi Iyengar

    Uh, a more sort of fundamental one. Uh, given the, the momentum around, uh, you have, uh, almost half of US states, uh, in some form, restricting, restricting the app on government [inaudible]

  • 00:39:32

    , uh, devices agencies, and, uh, in congress and all this… all this momentum, and a general hawkishness, uh, even within the Biden Administration. My question is, why hasn’t… why do you… both of you think the ban hasn’t happened yet? [inaudible]

  • 00:39:49

    we’ve heard… we’ve been hearing about this CFIUS review that’s reportedly been, been delayed for the, uh… over and over again. So, so, why hasn’t that ban happened yet? Is there a fear of the backlash from these 94 million Americans? Or is it some sort of tacit recognition of some of the points that Milton made? I’d just be interested in getting both of your thoughts on that.

  • 00:40:11

    Kori Schake

    Yeah. My sense is that it’s not that this is an easy call or an easy policy choice. It’s a hard one to make, for some of the reasons Milton suggests. And so, the Biden Administration, I think the fact that what you are seeing is the ban coming into effect in a… in a bottom-up way as states enact their bans, as different government agencies do, as different parts of the United States start to think their way through this problem and try and balance the risk of exposure to espionage or media manipulation, with the loss of commerce and with the ideological argument that, that he makes. Which is a legitimate one.

  • 00:41:00

    John Donvan

    I, I wanna, um, piggyback on your question, Rishi, to clarify something, um, from, from our panelist. The, the bans that are in development in some… in, uh… already in place state by state, are not bans on the general public to have TikTok on their phone, correct? We’re talking about govern- government officials cannot have TikTok on their phone. I just wanna be a hundred percent sure that any listener out there who’s in a state where this is happening does not suddenly think that he or she is breaking the law.

  • 00:41:30

    Milton Mueller

    Right. And it is in fact, um, uh, restricted to governments. A- and, um, so Rishi, you talked about, um, momentum, um, and it recalls to my mind the, uh, the Japanese internment camps of World War II. It was like, uh, there was, uh… The government knew that this was not a good thing to do and it wasn’t a fair thing to do. That it was racist and, uh, uh, violating the constitutional rights. But, there was so much agitation and mistrust, essentially racist mistrust of, of Japanese people, that we decided, “Well, we’re just gonna round ’em all up and put them into camps.” Um, and somethi-… You know, that’s not quite as bad yet, uh, but there’s something similar is happening with, with some of the Chinese.

  • 00:42:19

    But, when you look at these state bans, you find out that most of them are grounded in ignorance. And that, as soon as you start informing people about the real issue, such as this debate is doing, uh, the, the, the momentum behind them dissipates. For example, there was a, a, a vote in a South Dakota city council, uh, Rapid City, um, where they were considering a ban. And we sent them our report and, uh, suddenly the vote shifted from, like, six to two in favor, to eight to one against. Simply because these people had never heard the arguments against it. And here in the state of Georgia, something similar is happening. We have a, again, a conservative Republican state legislator who’s proposing a ban. Uh, and, um, he- he’s just never heard the arguments against. Uh, and the news media are not doing a good job of sort of investigating this. They’re just saying, “Oh, China threat, whatever.” Uh, so I, I believe that once we understand the, uh, the actual equities, the actual trade-offs involved, that, uh, we will not go to a ban.

  • 00:43:29

    And the other reason I’m confident about that is simply it’s, it’s illegal. I mean (laughs), why was Trump’s original ban overturned? It was just not legal. He was claiming powers under national security that he didn’t have. Uh, there could be a First Amendment challenge to a general broad ban. So, these state limitations on state employees are frequently overreaching. Like, if you’re telling me… I’m a state employee. I’m at a… I’m a university professor in a university system at Georgia. If you’re telling me that our wifi, uh, network on campus is gonna block TikTok (laughs), I’m going to, first of all, give you the finger. And secondly, I’m going to switch from wifi to 5G and get the… get the app anyway. Not that I spend a lot of time on campus, uh, uh, looking at TikTok, but, uh…

  • 00:44:19

    John Donvan

    Kori?

  • 00:44:19

    Kori Schake

    I was just gonna say, those are both reactions in the great American tradition. And what a pity that the Chinese people don’t have the ability to do that to their government.

  • 00:44:29

    Emily Baker-White

    I have a follow-up question about legality.

  • 00:44:31

    John Donvan

    Yeah. Thanks, Emily.

  • 00:44:32

    Emily Baker-White

    So, I understand that under the IEEPA, which is the vehicle that Trump tried to use to ban the app, there was a successful legal challenge by TikTok. However, it seems that the CFIUS process can proceed under a separate legal authority. And it also seems that CFIUS does have the power to order divestment. And so, it could be that ByteDance has to sell TikTok’s US operations to a US company. Are you implying that that action would also be illegal?

  • 00:45:00

    Milton Mueller

    Um, no. It’s, uh… You’re right. You’re exactly right. The CFIUS process is about, uh, foreign acquisitions.

  • 00:45:06

    John Donvan

    Can, can somebody please, for the… for the layperson, describe… for the general audience, describe CICIFUS. CICIUS. (laughs) [inaudible]

  • 00:45:13

  • 00:45:13

    Milton Mueller

    CICIFUS. Yes, it is… it is, uh, Sisyphean, uh, in nature. But it’s abou-… It’s called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US.

  • 00:45:19

    John Donvan

    Yeah.

  • 00:45:20

    Milton Mueller

    And, uh, it’s, it’s a big problem in and of itself. It’s been vested with enormous powers because of our national security scare. [inaudible]

  • 00:45:28

    essentially because ByteDance acquired an American app called Musical.ly back in 2017, CFIUS has… can, can review this. Um, and c-… they could, as an extreme, order, uh, ByteDance to divest themselves of this. They’re not going to. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna come up with a more moderate solution. Um, but, uh, they could, in principle, do that. And that would not… I don’t know. It could be challenged on First Amendment grounds. But, uh, it would be a much harder case than a simple ban.

  • 00:46:01

    John Donvan

    All right. We are gonna wrap the open discussion there and head down the homestretch to our closing round. And our closing rounds are brief closing statements by each of you to summarize your positions or add something perhaps you didn’t bring the first time. Um, these will be a maximum 90 seconds. And, Milton, since Kori went first in our opening statements, you have the floor on this one. Again, tell us why the US should not ban TikTok.

  • 00:46:23

    Milton Mueller

    I think we have to stop imitating Chinese policies. That, we do not respond to authoritarianism with more authoritarianism. That, we have to have confidence in a free society. Uh, and so if you look at what the critics of TikTok are advocating, it is the data protectionism, data nationalism. They’re advocating blocking and censoring apps. They are advocating a militarization of the information economy. And this is exactly what China does. TikTok is not a tool [inaudible]

  • 00:47:02

    Chinese government. It is a commercial entity. And it should… it is introducing competition and diversity into our own market. We should welcome that. And I really don’t believe that, um, a ban, which essentially is saying, “We surrender, China. You’re right. Your model of government is right and ours is, is weak.” Uh, I, I don’t believe that. I think freedom, and liberty, and diversity are strong. And that we can thrive, uh, by being open to all kinds of different apps and services.

  • 00:47:38

    John Donvan

    Thanks very much, Milton. And now, Kori, you get to have the final word. Your rebuttal please as to why the US should ban TikTok.

  • 00:47:44

    Kori Schake

    So, I agree with Milton that competition’s a great thing and the openness of the American ecosystem is why we thrive. But there’s a lot of distance between saying, um, that, uh, we need to have some controls over government-related businesses from foreign countries, having the ability to conduct espionage and to manipulate media in the United States. We can have some minor limits without becoming an authoritarian state. And Milton’s suggestion is that you are either an open society, or you as repressive as the Chinese government. And I think there’s a lot of space in between.

  • 00:48:34

    Um, and so, the decision about banning TikTok, it’s a difficult policy decision. There are serious downsides, as Milton has pointed out, to restricting 96 million Americans from having the fun of using the TikTok app. And yet, I think the concerns about espionage and potential media manipulation, uh, regrettably mean that we should ban TikTok.

  • 00:49:03

    John Donvan

    All right. Thank you, Kori. And while that concludes our debate, and it was a good one. Um, robust and tough but, um, as we always like to keep it, respectful and informative. And that’s because the two of you, Kori and Milton, brought, brought game and also brought respect and civility to what we’re doing. And as always, when debaters do it that way, I have to say, thank you so much for that. And just thank you so much for joining us and bringing your thoughts and ideas to us.

  • 00:49:28

    Thank you, everybody, for tuning into this episode of Intelligence Squared. Uh, I also wanna thank Emily and Rishi for their questions. And I wanna point out that as a non-profit, uh, our work combating extreme polarization through civil and respectful debate is generously funded by listeners like you, and by the Rosenkranz Foundation, and by friends of Intelligence Squared. Intelligence Squared is also made possible by a generous grant from the Laura and Gary Lauder Venture Philanthropy Fund. Robert Rosenkranz is our Chairman. Clea Conner is our CEO. Lia Matthow is our Chief Content Officer. David Ariosto is our Mnaging Editor. Julia Melfi and Marlette Sandoval are our Producers. Gabrielle Iannucelli is our Social Media and Digital Platforms Coordinator. Andrew Lipson is Head of Production. Damon Whittemore is our Radio Producer. Raven Baker is Events and Operations manager. And I’m your host, John Donvan. Thank you so much for joining us. We’ll see you next time.

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