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By Farhad Manjoo
There’s been an average of more than one school shooting per week in the United States so far in 2023, so it’s great to see lawmakers from both parties finally reaching consensus on how to protect America’s children: Ban TikTok.
Is this real life? Are we really doing this?
American politicians have been warning for years that TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, allows the Chinese Communist Party to spy on Americans or otherwise threaten our national security. After a train-wreck congressional hearing last week in which lawmakers pummeled Shou Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, with tough-sounding, sometimes clueless questions they often didn’t let him answer, it looks more likely than ever that the world’s most downloaded app will wind up being banned in the United States (even if Senator Rand Paul has thrown sand in the gears of Senator Josh Hawley’s efforts to fast-track his version of a ban).
That would be a pretty extreme outcome: a nonsolution to a ginned-up problem; a windfall to Big Tech oligopolists like Facebook and Google; an infringement of millions of Americans’ free speech rights; and a blow to America’s moral authority to promote values like free expression as a counterweight to that of, say, the Chinese Communist Party.
Even for those concerned about the company’s influence, a TikTok-specific ban is unnecessary, because there’s a much better way to regulate it and other social apps at the same time: Strict laws protecting all Americans’ online privacy from invasive apps made everywhere, not just in China.
Lawmakers’ focus on TikTok’s Chinese ownership misses the real problem with how the internet operates, a problem that goes beyond this one app. That problem, as the journalist Julia Angwin argued recently, is the staggering amount of data that ad-supported apps — wherever they’re based — collect on us; the creepy and opaque ways they use that data to manipulate us, and the weakness of laws protecting our private information from being sold to or pilfered by anyone, including governments.
Banning TikTok in response to these industrywide practices would be a bit like saying that because cars without seatbelts are unsafe, we should ban Japanese and German cars that don’t have seatbelts, because only American products should be allowed to harm us.
Wouldn’t requiring seatbelts in all cars, regardless of ownership, be wiser?
I’m not here to defend TikTok. I don’t buy the company’s denials that its American operations are totally independent from China’s leaders — the Chinese government doesn’t seem to have ever met an internet company it doesn’t want to control.
But isn’t the American government supposed to be better than the Chinese government? In banning TikTok, wouldn’t American lawmakers be instituting an internet-governance solution straight from the C.C.P.’s playbook — curtailing its own citizens’ access to information by blocking apps it capriciously deems unsafe?
As the First Amendment scholar Jameel Jaffer noted recently, “TikTok’s American users are indisputably exercising First Amendment rights when they post and consume content on the platform.”
Censorship on that scale should require strong proof of harm. There is some: The journalist Emily Baker-White has reported on significant misdeeds by TikTok and its parent company, including that ByteDance has spied on journalists (the companies maintained that employees mishandled a leak investigation) and that some of its engineers in China had access to data about American users. Not great!
But other tech companies have been involved in shady stuff — Hewlett-Packard spied on journalists, Uber covered up the leak of records on 57 million users, documents show that lots of Google employees have wrongly accessed users’ data and Twitter hired a Saudi spy who tracked dissidents — and Congress hasn’t banned them. I’d be open to a TikTok ban if national security officials presented comprehensive evidence showing that TikTok provides China’s government access to Americans’ data or allows its recommendation algorithm to be shaped by Chinese propaganda. They haven’t; officials instead generally point to such dangers as a possibility.
And there’s evidence that tells a different story. A security assessment of TikTok by Georgia Tech’s Internet Governance Project found that the app is “not exporting censorship, either directly by blocking material, or indirectly via its recommendation algorithm.” The Citizen Lab, a technology research group at the University of Toronto, concluded in 2021 that “TikTok’s program features and code do not pose a threat to national security.”
Experts have also pointed out that China doesn’t need special powers over TikTok to spy on us, because the whole internet spies on us just as capably — and the data that’s collected can be easily obtained by lots of organizations, including governments.
As Darrell West and Mishaela Robison of the Brookings Institution wrote this year, “Even if TikTok did not exist, China could purchase confidential information on U.S. consumers from other companies and use that material for nefarious purposes, creating similar national security challenges.”
There are other problems with a TikTok ban. Lawmakers in both parties have long ranted about the power of Big Tech. TikTok is the first real threat to Facebook’s dominance over social media to come along in years.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has been trying desperately to catch up, including by revamping Instagram to highlight its TikTok knockoff, Reels. The Washington Post reported last year that Meta even hired a Republican consulting firm to “orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.” YouTube, owned by Google, has pushed a TikTok clone of its own.
Who do you suppose benefits if TikTok disappeared from app stores tomorrow? It probably won’t be some groundbreaking new app created by striving entrepreneurs in a Silicon Valley garage. In the absence of substantive rules to restrict the collection of data, profiling of users and targeting of ads by all internet companies, the alternative to TikTok’s opaque algorithm will be Facebook’s opaque algorithm, or Google’s, or Twitter’s. The very companies that some politicians say are already too dominant in American civic discourse — Big Tech’s “tyranny,” as Hawley puts it — will grow only stronger.
What, then, to do? TikTok has been talking up Project Texas, its proposal for safeguarding American users’ data. As Chew told Congress, the plan would make TikTok as American as apple pie: “American data stored on American soil by an American company overseen by American personnel.”
But I’m skeptical. Data is rarely so strictly contained. And as Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of trust and safety, has written, separating TikTok’s American data from its other data could backfire by reducing its insight into threats like coordinated propaganda. It’s only by examining large amounts of data that companies can spot such manipulation — if TikTok can’t assess all its data, it might miss real threats.
There are better ideas for safeguarding our data. We’ve got to require internet companies to install the equivalent of seatbelts. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internet civil rights group, has called for a federal privacy law that, among other rules, would require companies to get users’ explicit permission to collect, use and share data; let people see what data companies have on them; make it easier for users to sue companies that misuse their data; let us move our information between platforms; and more tightly regulate the “data broker” industry.
Giving these provisions teeth would be easier said than done, of course: We’ve had a national do-not-call registry for years, but who do you know who doesn’t still routinely get spam calls?
Still, it makes sense to at least try some measured policy ideas before resorting to something as drastic as a ban. In America, unlike in China, anything like censorship shouldn’t be the default.
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