I was really rooting for TikTok.

In 2020, when the Trump administration first tried to force TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the app or risk having it shut down, I argued that banning TikTok in the United States would do more harm than good.

Why? Partly because TikTok seemed like a convenient scapegoat for problems — invasive data collection, opaque content policies, addictive recommendation algorithms — that plagued all the big social media apps, and partly because I never bought the argument that the app was a Chinese spying tool hiding in plain sight.

I’m still skeptical of that argument. If the Chinese government wanted to snoop on Americans through their smartphones, it wouldn’t have to use TikTok to do it. It could buy troves of information from a data broker, thanks to America’s nonexistent federal data privacy laws.

And I’m still worried that banning TikTok would be a huge gift to U.S. tech giants like Meta and Google, which own TikTok’s largest competitors — Facebook, Instagram and YouTube — further entrenching winners in a market that already has too little competition.

But over the past few weeks, as a bipartisan bill that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok hurtled toward passage in Congress, I’ve warmed up to the idea that banning TikTok, or forcing its sale, is probably a good idea.

I’ve arrived at this position reluctantly. I still find much of the anti-TikTok case to be based on vague claims of theoretical harms. And I’m sympathetic to arguments made by organizations like the A.C.L.U. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that banning TikTok would stifle constitutionally protected speech by American citizens, and could set a precedent that authoritarian governments around the world could cite to justify censoring online speech they did not like.

But TikTok has also made a series of unforced errors that have hurt its cause. And the company’s ham-handed response to the latest congressional bill — including encouraging users to flood their representatives’ offices with angry calls — may have inadvertently proved critics right, by showing that TikTok is both interested in and capable of using its muscle to influence American politics when it wants.

Alex Haurek, a TikTok spokesman, defended the company’s response, saying that “Americans have a constitutional right to petition government for redress of grievances, and that includes TikTok users asking their members of Congress to vote against a bill that would trample their constitutional right of free expression and, in many cases, their livelihoods.”

TikTok has had four years to clean up its act since President Donald J. Trump led an attempt to force a sale. It could have spent that time becoming radically transparent — proving that it had nothing to hide, and that its relationship to ByteDance was as distant and hands-off as it claimed. The company’s leaders could have acknowledged — and sincerely wrestled with — the tension inherent in being a Chinese-owned app that hosts political speech in the United States and other democratic nations, even though some of that speech will inevitably veer in directions the Chinese government doesn’t like.

Instead, TikTok paid lip service to transparency by embarking on Project Texas, an unpersuasive project meant to assuage fears about Chinese spying by moving TikTok’s U.S. user data to data servers owned by the American company Oracle. Last year, it invited reporters to tour a new complex it called the Transparency and Accountability Center in Los Angeles, which some attendees described as a neon-lit theme park filled with defensive corporate messaging.

Mr. Haurek, the TikTok spokesman, said the company’s transparency efforts, which included allowing outside audits of the app’s source code, were “unprecedented” and “well ahead of any peer company.”

Mostly, TikTok tried to keep its head down, while privately suggesting that anyone who dared to question the company’s ties to the Chinese government was engaging in paranoid, and perhaps racist, fear mongering.

There have, in fact, been times when TikTok’s critics have overstepped — such as the aggressive questioning that Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, faced during a congressional hearing last month about whether he had ties to the Chinese Communist Party. (Mr. Chew is Singaporean.)

But the company also wielded accusations of xenophobia against good-faith skeptics who simply wanted to know how an app owned by a Chinese tech conglomerate could be free of Chinese influence, given Beijing’s track record of meddling with its tech companies. (I’ll never forget the time a few years ago when a TikTok executive suggested that I was a bigot for raising questions about whether Mr. Chew — who, importantly, was also serving as ByteDance’s chief financial officer at the time — felt pressure to adhere to Chinese censorship laws.)

The company also expanded its lobbying operations in Washington, and resisted transparency when it came to its own operations.

In 2022, for example, ByteDance employees were caught surveilling U.S. journalists who were reporting on TikTok, gathering data from the reporters’ TikTok apps in an attempt to identify who was leaking internal conversations and documents to them. Several ByteDance employees were fired after the incident came to light, and the company claimed it was a “misguided” effort, but for me the idea that this was an unauthorized operation carried out by a few rogue workers has never passed the smell test.

My colleagues Sapna Maheshwari and Ryan Mac reported last year that TikTok employees shared U.S. user data on a messaging system, known as Lark, that was also used by Chinese ByteDance employees, despite executives’ claims that TikTok didn’t share that data.

And this year, after researchers used a TikTok data tool to compile information about popular videos related to topics that are suppressed inside China — and concluded that videos about several such topics, like China’s Uyghur population and the protests in Hong Kong, were unusually underrepresented on TikTok compared with other social networks — TikTok quietly restricted the tool rather than dispelling the criticism.

None of these things, on their own, would justify banning TikTok. And it’s true that American tech companies engage in similar practices from time to time.

But fairly or not, we’ve always held foreign-owned businesses to higher standards. This is especially true for media companies, whose political and cultural influence makes them tempting targets for would-be meddlers. (Rupert Murdoch, for example, was required to become a U.S. citizen before buying Fox News, because of laws at the time that prohibited foreigners from buying American TV stations.)

TikTok is more powerful than any broadcast network, thanks to its enormous size — 170 million Americans use it — and the stickiness of its algorithms. And it has proved, with its response to Congress’s actions this week, that it’s willing to throw its weight around to get what it wants.

Will TikTok actually be banned? Hard to say. The Senate still needs to pass the forced-sale bill, and President Biden needs to sign it. Then, it will have to survive the court challenges. ByteDance, which views selling TikTok as an absolute last resort, is already signaling that it’s going to mount a full-blown legal battle to prevent it. And, of course, a ban could be undone if Mr. Trump — who has flip-flopped on TikTok, and now says he doesn’t support forcing the app to sell — is elected in November.

Watching TikTok fight for its life over the past few weeks, using some of the same techniques of obfuscation and deflection that have worried critics for years, has been profoundly depressing. Like many Americans, I use TikTok every day, and I wanted to defend my favorite time-wasting app from a threat to its existence.

But a company under suspicion has to hold itself to a higher standard, and so far, TikTok has failed at convincing critics that it has sufficiently disentangled itself from its Chinese owner.

If it is able to escape a forced sale, or if the bill is blocked by the courts, the company should count itself lucky, and should get to work putting more real, verifiable distance between itself and ByteDance, to make its claims of independence more credible.

And if TikTok is forced to sell, it will have only its own mistakes to blame.


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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