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MIT Technology Review

TikTok’s second lawsuit in a week brings a US ban a shade closer

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The news: An Illinois family sued video app TikTok for collecting the personal data of minors without consent. This lawsuit comes days after a California college student sued the company for allegedly sending her data to servers in China. That comes amid reports that the company suppresses political videos and those from people with disabilities. Oh, and the US government is still reviewing whether the platform is a national security threat. China-owned TikTok claims that it only operates in the US and doesn’t interact with the Chinese government, but that hasn’t stopped fears that TikTok could be used to manipulate American users—and send their sensitive information into the hands of the Chinese government.

The fate of TikTok: The national security investigation, which is being undertaken by the Committee for Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS), is still going on. The worst-case scenario is that CFIUS prevents TikTok from operating in the US entirely, which had seemed very unlikely—though this wave of unflattering headlines might change that. 

Now, experts suggest that an aggressive CFIUS result is more likely. CFIUS expert Harry Clark, at the law firm Orrick, says the committee might conclude that TikTok and its Chinese owner ByteDance are untrustworthy. The results could extend beyond the current review too, adds Claudia Biancotti, a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. If a court finds that TikTok regularly hides its data-collecting activities and sends information to China, this could be used as evidence in future national security reviews of other Chinese companies. 

So what? At the very least, this onslaught of bad publicity is likely to affect public opinion on TikTok. (TikTok, in fact, quietly settled the Illinois lawsuit one day after it was filed.) It'll also set the tone for discussions about how to deal with the power of foreign technology companies. TikTok is a litmus test to signal whether the original dream of the internet—to connect everyone—can survive, or whether the network will split along national borders.  

Update: This article has been updated to add that TikTok has settled the Illinois lawsuit.