[Well, here it is. Two years ago we warned everyone who would listen that TikTok were apparatchiks for the Chinese Communist Party–by law in China because of the CCP’s civil-military fusion–“If Google is the Joe Camel of data, then TikTok is the Joe Camel of intelligence.” We did panels warning about TikTok including the CEO’s struggle session and the CCP constitution–facts, you know. Tim Ingham warned that on top of everything else, the deals suck. And then there’s Twinkletoes, who is in our view a walking, talking Foreign Agent Registration Act violation.
[According to Emily Baker White writing in Forbes:]
China-based team at TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, planned to use the TikTok app to monitor the personal location of some specific American citizens, according to materials reviewed by Forbes.
The team behind the monitoring project — ByteDance’s Internal Audit and Risk Control department — is led by Beijing-based executive Song Ye, who reports to ByteDance cofounder and CEO Rubo Liang.
The team primarily conducts investigations into potential misconduct by current and former ByteDance employees. But in at least two cases, the Internal Audit team also planned to collect TikTok data about the location of a U.S. citizen who had never had an employment relationship with the company, the materials show. It is unclear from the materials whether data about these Americans was actually collected; however, the plan was for a Beijing-based ByteDance team to obtain location data from U.S. users’ devices.
TikTok seems more likely to be shut down in the US with every passing day. How could this actually happen and what would “shut down” actually look like? Given that TikTok is a massive infringer, we will lose no sleep if they find themselves in real trouble. Still, it won’t be easy, particularly since the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation (and other usual suspects who received Google and Facebook largesse) will no doubt rush to their defense. I’ll do a little prognosticating with the “over/under” that will necessarily entail some speculation about the future political environment.
Here are a few ideas, but my bet is that if it happens at all, it will be a combination punch. One thing we know for sure is that TikTok’s chief lobbyist in Washington, Michael Beckerman (the Shoe Man) will be earning his millions. Here’s a look at the old jab jab cross.
The Ghost Ship: If TikTok were determined to be a front for a foreign government (this time the Chinese Communist Party), Americans could be prohibited from working for TikTok and advertisers could be prohibited from doing business with the company under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act 50 U.S.C. § 1701. There are several different angles from espionage to election meddling to compromising Hong Kong, Tibetan, Taiwan or Uyghur human rights, or the decertification of Hong Kong.
If the shutdown is given effect under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, it’s likely that installed versions of the TikTok app would continue to work, but would gradually degrade in user experience as the U.S. installed base could not lawfully be supported.
Et Tu CFIUS?The US Government reviews significant asset sales to foreign investors (including state owned enterprises) that implicate national security. This review is given effect in part through the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS). CFIUS is currently reviewing the acquisition of Musical.ly by TikTok parent Bytedance, a process that began on November 1, 2019. It is possible that an acquirer like Bytedance can ask for a pre-clearance from CFIUS and–are you ready? Bytedance did not seek that pre-clearance, which requires explaining why the target’s business implicates national security like handing over user data to China’s State Security agency. Which is the very thing that is required by China’s National Intelligence Law but that TikTok denies doing. And is also probably the subject of at least one FBI counterintelligence investigation at this very moment.
Over/Under: This CFIUS investigation is ongoing, so will likely conclude. CFIUS can require that the Musical.ly acquisition be unwound. That would mean that the government could force a sale of TikTok (probably its US assets) or require TikTok to cease operations in the US. CFIUS has also forced Chinese investors to divest from PatientsLikeMe and Grindr. The CFIUS option has both precedent and is already in motion. I like this option as an opening gambit as it would happen in the background as far as TikTok users are concerned. Since Facebook is already trying to get licensed and also get in TikTok’s business, a sale would be relatively easy to accomplish.
No TikTok IPO For Bytedance: Like the CFIUS review, there is already a process in play in the Congress that will make a U.S. TikTok IPO much less attractive to Bytedance. The Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act (S. 945) that unanimously passed the Senate on May 20 and was introduce in the House by Brad Sherman (D-CA) as H.R. 7000 where it is also expected to pass. It will be very interesting to see who votes against it.
It shouldn’t be surprising that China’s President-for-Life Xi Jinping doesn’t like his public companies being audited by U.S. public accounting firms and held to the same standards as all the other public companies. You know, Sarbanes Oxley and all that jazz.
For reasons that are difficult to fathom, China somehow managed to finagle a pass on SarBox compliance in 2013–ahem–that has been decried far and wide (recently by Arthur Levitt, President Clinton’s SEC chairman). According to Reuters, “The audit-quality issue has been festering since 2011, when scores of Chinese firms trading on U.S. exchanges were accused of accounting irregularities.”
According to Bloomberg the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act says:
If a company can’t show that it is not under [control of a foreign government] such control or the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, or PCAOB, isn’t able to audit the company for three consecutive years to determine that it is not under the control of a foreign government, the company’s securities would be banned from the exchanges.
Bloomberg also tells us:
Stricter U.S. oversight could potentially affect the future listing plans of major private Chinese corporations from Jack Ma’s Ant Financial to SoftBank-backed ByteDance Ltd. But since discussions on increased disclosure requirements began last year, many other Chinese companies have either listed in Hong Kong already or plan to do so, said James Hull, a Beijing-based analyst and portfolio manager with Hullx.
“All Chinese U.S.-listed entities are potentially impacted over the coming years,” he said. “Increased disclosure may hurt some smaller companies, but there’s been risk disclosures around PCAOB for a while now, so it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.”
Why would they list on Hong Kong when they are already listed on NY? Because they anticipate getting dumped from NY and they will still trade on the Hong Kong exchange for all the suckers.
Over/Under: TikTok could become the poster child for holding foreign companies accountable. HR 7000’s sponsor is Representative Brad Sherman who is a crack CPA and knows his way around this issue. Representative Sherman is also Chair of the powerful House Financial Services Subcommittee on Investor Protection, Entrepreneurship and Capital Markets so it’s likely that the legislation will pass out of the House, although Mr. Beckerman and the vast network of CCP lobbyists and consultants will have their work cut out for them. Trump would sign this bill faster than you can say “Rosatom”. By denying Bytedance (and Softbank) access to the U.S. capital markets, it would weaken the incentive for TikTok to fight a ban in court as the legislation is unrelated to a ban. Legislative action could not be easily reversed in a Biden Administration (who was in the White House when China got the exemption that the bill would now fix).
Criminal RICO: TikTok may well be determined to be a racketeering organization and a criminal conspiracy for massive copyright infringement as a RICO predicate, not to mention potentially violation of the Export Administration Regulations for exporting data to a foreign country with a military purpose as evidenced by China’s National Intelligence Law. It would at least be worth convening a grand jury to investigate.
Michael “Big Foot” Beckerman has moved from screwing artists at the Internet Association to screwing artists at pay-to-play service TikTok, China’s answer to the $50 handshake. Banned by multiple departments of the U.S. Government and a fav of pedophiles, TikTok’s new lobbyist has got one thing on his mind–more shoes for Mikey. Which means tap-dancing around an IPO for TikTok.
Politico tells us that Mr. Beckerman’s biggest challenge is making a Chinese company that some think is a thinly veiled state owned enterprise that surveils for the CCP seem like it’s not really Chinese.
TIKTOK IN WASHINGTON — Michael Beckerman took the helm of TikTok’s policy shop just a week before coronavirus-related restrictions got underway. Now the former Internet Association chief is staffing up the company’s first Washington office and trying to make Capitol Hill inroads while the pandemic has brought business as usual to a halt. That’s meant video conferences and phone calls with Hill offices, as well as remote interviews with prospective staff. “We’re moving forward. The company’s doing well and growing, and my hope is when everybody can go back to work, we’ll have the first pieces of our team in place,” Beckerman told MT.
—Exactly how big that team will be, Beckerman declined to say. But the company currently has eight openings on its website for D.C. policy experts focused on privacy, content moderation, intellectual property and more. “It’s not going to be a WeWork-size office, I’ll say. We will have a physical office with a team that can tell the story of the company and be really proactive,” he noted. Until now, TikTok has been reluctant to engage lawmakers. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee left an empty witness chair when TikTok declined to appear at two hearings, and the company’s leader, Alex Zhu, canceled a series of Capitol Hill meetings last year. “We’ll be engaging fully with Congress. I can’t speak to specific hearings, but we definitely look forward to telling our story,” Beckerman said.
But here’s the good part:
— TikTok’s big D.C. objective is distancing itself from China. The app’s ties to Beijing-based ByteDance have been a source of suspicion in Washington, but Beckerman attributes that to confusion about its corporate structure. TikTok is not a subsidiary of ByteDance, as has been widely reported, he said. Rather, the two companies share a common Cayman Islands-based holding company, also called ByteDance.And though Zhu resides in China, TikTok’s other senior executives are located in the U.S. TikTok is not available in China and data from its U.S. users is not stored there, Beckerman added. “A lot of that anti-China sentiment we really need to clear up and explain how this company is being run independently, and it’s not subject to Chinese law or a subsidiary of a Chinese company,” he said.
Oh that’s MUCH less confusing. “TikTok is not a subsidiary of ByteDance, as has been widely reported, he said. Rather, the two companies share a common Cayman Islands-based holding company, also called ByteDance.”
What a relief. Big Foot to the rescue. I feel so much better now.
This takes “news from the goolag” to a whole new level.
[Editor Charlie sez: This is kind of like reverse MIC Coalition. Time for the Internet Association’s CEO Michael Beckerman (call sign “Big Foot”) to scramble. Remember him? Wasn’t he an extra in Zoolander?]
An unusual constellation of powerful companies and industries are fighting to weaken Big Tech by limiting the reach of one of its most sacred laws. The law, known as Section 230, makes it nearly impossible to sue platforms like Facebook or Google for the words, images and videos posted by their users.