Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 10 April 2024

 America is right to target TikTok


Vinod Khosla The writer is the founder of Khosla Ventures · 10 Apr 2024


The US House of Representatives in March overwhelmingly passed a bill to force divestiture of TikTok from its Chinese parent. Many in Silicon Valley are against this bill but I staunchly support it. Neither I nor my firm stands to gain or lose anything on the back of this bill’s outcome, but I can see how TikTok can be weaponised by a foreign adversary.

This TikTok divestiture is about preventing a foreign adversary from controlling a platform to deploy what I call “persuasive AI”, to surreptitiously manipulate US citizens, compromise elections, push divisive content, and otherwise promote the objectives of the Chinese Communist party. Some think we can prevent these problems with narrow legislation restricting the transfer of data. But none of these harms require data to be transferred. Privacy safeguards will not solve this problem.

It is telling that the Chinese government considers the TikTok algorithm a key asset, having included it on a restricted list of technologies in 2020, preventing its export without government approval. Precisely due to TikTok’s importance as a tool for espionage and a launch pad for persuasive AI, the Chinese government will choose a ban over divestiture. TikTok is a tool that has proven so valuable — for social influence campaigns and espionage — that ByteDance is spending money hand over fist on an intimidation campaign. Donald Trump, who signed an executive order in 2020 to ban TikTok, has now opposed it after meeting with mega donor Jeff Yass, who may have as much as 75 per cent of his net worth tied up in ByteDance. Is Senate influence for sale?

Some argue that this bill runs counter to the value of free speech. First, contrary to how it is being characterised by TikTok, this bill itself is not a ban. It is a forced divestiture, and hopefully, a precedent on foreign corporate ownership of tools that can reach hundreds of millions of Americans.

We no longer live in an era where explosives are the only destructive weapons; winning hearts and minds with surveillance and viral ideas are among this century’s main theatres of warfare. To do so, TikTok uses an algorithm powered by advanced artificial intelligence. And it is in the hands of the CCP. Recognising that TikTok is an AIpowered subversion weapon, we should view it as we do other weapons and materials relevant to our national defence industry. We banned Huawei routers in US telecommunications networks for surveillance prevention reasons. TikTok’s surveillance and persuasion capability is well documented.

Second, a forced divestiture of TikTok does not violate the First Amendment of the US constitution. Some members of Congress opposed the bill, because like the CCP, they’re worried about free speech. But they are evidently less concerned for the TikTok shareholders who are unable to criticise TikTok for fear of having their holdings seized. Can you discuss the #UyghurGenocide or #HongKongProtest on TikTok? Isn’t this a strong indication of CCP control? The proposed legislation targets TikTok’s foreign ownership, not its content. Passing this bill is a question of corporate ownership, not speech. The First Amendment in no way grants China the right to own US media properties.

Even if one could argue that this bill strikes at the First Amendment, there is precedent for doing so. In 1981, Haig vs Agee established that there are circumstances under which the government can lawfully impinge upon an individual’s First Amendment rights if it is necessary to protect national security and prevent substantial harm. TikTok and the AI that can be channelled through it are national and homeland security issues that meet these standards.

Should this bill turn into law, the president would have the power to force any foreign-owned social media to be sold if US intelligence agencies deem them a national security threat. This broader scope should protect against challenges that this is a bill of attainder. Similar language helped protect effective bans on Huawei and Kaspersky Lab.

As for TikTok’s value as a boon to consumers and businesses, there are many companies that could replace it. In 2020, after India banned TikTok amid tensions between Beijing and New Delhi, services including Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts, MX TakaTak, Chingari and others filled the void.

Few appreciate that TikTok is not available in China. Instead, Chinese consumers use Douyin, the sister app that features educational and patriotic videos, and is limited to 40 minutes per day of total usage. Spinach for Chinese kids, fentanyl, another chief export of China’s, for ours. Worse still, TikTok is a programmable fentanyl whose effects are under the control of the CCP.

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