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TikTok: Technology Overview and Issues

CRS Report – TikTok: Technology Overview and Issues, Updated June 30, 2023: “TikTok is a globally popular video-sharing smartphone application (app) owned by ByteDance Ltd., a privately held company headquartered in Beijing, China. It is under increasing scrutiny by the U.S. government as a potential privacy and security risk to U.S. citizens. This is because ByteDance, as with all technology companies doing business in China, is subject to Chinese laws that require companies operating in the country to turn over user data when asked by the Chinese government. Researchers differ over how TikTok data collection compares with other social media apps and whether TikTok poses a threat to the privacy and security of its U.S. users. TikTok launched in the United States in August 2018. The app is available in about 150 countries in 75 languages and has approximately 1 billion monthly active users. In the United States, the app has approximately 150 million monthly active users. TikTok’s appeal lies heavily in what has been called its “addictive” video feed, called the “For You” feed. The app builds this feed through a “recommendation engine” that uses artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and data mining practices. According to the company, the recommendation engine relies on a complex set of weighted factors to recommend content, including hashtags and videos watched previously, as well as the kind of user device. TikTok critics cite problems with how much data TikTok collects from and about its users and with how that data is stored—and could be shared. Some critics have also raised concerns about how TikTok promotes certain content to users and the potential to spread misinformation or propaganda. On August 6, 2020, then-President Trump signed an executive order aimed at stopping TikTok from doing business in the United States. If the order had gone into effect on September 27, 2020, as scheduled, it would have prohibited any U.S. company or person from “transacting” with ByteDance. On August 14, 2020…Some stakeholders believe TikTok and other Chinese-owned apps pose a serious security risk to the United States, because Chinese companies are subject to China’s laws that require compliance with Chinese government requests for data. Others believe that TikTok has fallen into “the crosshairs of a global technology battle” based on technology trade protectionism. Similar situations may arise in the future with other apps created by foreign companies. At least 15 countries have partially or completely banned the TikTok app. Options that Congress may consider include (1) developing an overarching legal and regulatory framework to protect the security and privacy of U.S. citizens’ data and communications, and (2) developing a  uniform, transparent process to assess and mediate risks from foreign apps.”

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