Tech journalist Kara Swisher loves air-fryer TikToks — and the sand videos. But she only scrolls through them on a burner phone, as she tells the company’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, in this latest episode of On With Kara Swisher.
As TikTok has gone gangbusters — accumulating over a billion users globally — concerns have emerged about the social-media platform’s ownership structure and the company’s roots in China. The U.S. government has real questions about what data the app is amassing, whether that data can be accessed by the Chinese Communist Party, and if the platform is a tool for espionage or foreign interference/propaganda. Kara has those questions too — and she directs them to Pappas in the interview, excerpted below.
On With Kara Swisher
Kara Swisher: In June 2022, for example, the same time you moved the service to Oracle, BuzzFeed reporting leaked audio from 80 internal meetings showing that TikTok staff in China had access to U.S. user data. Can you respond to that?
Vanessa Pappas: Yeah, so we’ve never said that employees in China haven’t had access to data and everything that we’re doing is to make sure that we’re reducing or minimizing those access points and really having the right protocols around it so that it is on a must-need basis to globally operate the platform. And so everything that we’ve been doing over the last year or so as it relates to moving the data storage from our U.S. facility into Oracle’s, to increasing the access controls and having more of that oversight, is really to ensure the safety and security of that data and how it’s accessed and making sure that it’s for reasonable use or reasonable application.
Kara Swisher: Do you understand that most people do believe that the Chinese government really does want to influence this platform or any platform that it has power over?
Vanessa Pappas: Yeah look, we certainly understand the concerns, but like every global open platform, we’re all facing the same challenges, whether it’s covert influence from any of the state actors out there. And we’re all investing heavily into the security of our platforms so that we don’t see those breaches and we provide full transparency around any time that there would be a request from a foreign government and so on. I think a lot of it gets to this perception that because we were founded in China, or at least the parent company was founded in China, that that makes the company more susceptible. And that’s essentially why we’re working heavily to address those concerns and working through the CFIUS process with the United States government.
Kara Swisher: CFIUS is the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.
Vanessa Pappas: Yes.
Kara Swisher: It’s full of national security people, etcetera, and more, that decides whether companies can operate in the U.S., essentially.
Vanessa Pappas: Yes. So we’ve been involved and engaged through the CFIUS process for a couple of years now and looking at getting to a final approval of the National Security Agreement.
Kara Swisher: Can you tell us broadly — I know you can’t talk specifically, or we’re happy if you can talk specifically — what they want?
Vanessa Pappas: I mean, it gets back to the exact two things that have been the misperceptions or criticisms that we’re facing, which is: Can the Chinese government access data and/or can they influence our systems? And so we’re putting protections in place to really address those concerns.
Kara Swisher: Do you also feel that the Chinese government not allowing U.S. companies in there in the same manner is problematic for you?
Vanessa Pappas: I think every company has to think about how they’re operating around the world and every country has its own expectations of what that looks like. And we’re actually seeing just how fragmented the internet is becoming. And a lot of the rhetoric around “TikTok should be banned” or “there needs to be a divestiture or something” — it plays into that of having a more fragmented internet experience, which I don’t think is the path that we want to go down.
Kara Swisher: The reporting was that it wasn’t going to divest. Is that what you know about that?
Vanessa Pappas: Correct.
Kara Swisher: That ByteDance will remain the owner of Tiktok … that’s the way it works now.
Vanessa Pappas: Yes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
More From 'on with kara swisher'
- Martina Navratilova on Why She Keeps Talking About Trans Women in Sports
- Satya Nadella on Hiring the Most Powerful Man in AI