U.S. politicians and public officials are hot to ban TikTok, and the ocean of speech and expression that takes place there, out of fear of the app's Chinese ownership.
What social media app drives U.S. politicians to ape the totalitarianism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)?
If you guessed TikTok, pat yourself on the back.
The ADD-friendly video-sharing platform, which boasts more than 1 billion monthly active users worldwide and over 138 million in the U.S., has come under increasing attack recently, mostly due to its being owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, which falls under the aegis of the People’s Republic of China.
Genuine concern over the use of data collected by TikTok has mushroomed into full-on paranoia over a service that allows users to post largely harmless and often entertaining videos of themselves performing comedy skits, shooting firearms, dancing in various states of undress, advertising products and commenting on social or political issues. Hypocritically, many officeholders who disapprove of TikTok use it to advance their political careers.
Still, recent events track a building momentum. Since the beginning of November:
- Brendan Carr, the senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission and a frequent critic of the app, told Axios that the government should ban TikTok, saying there was no way to ensure that one’s personal data is not “finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party].” Earlier this year, Carr penned letters to Google and Apple, asking the companies to remove the app from their stores.
- South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, issued an executive order banning TikTok for “state government agencies, employees, and contractors using state devices.” Noem declared that her state would have “no part in the intelligence gathering operations of nations who hate us,” alleging that the CCP “uses the information that it gathers on TikTok to manipulate the American people.” (The GOP governors of Maryland and Texas recently followed suit, with more sure to come.)
- Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Congressman Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin (both Rs) announced in a Washington Post op-ed that they were introducing legislation banning TikTok, arguing that the U.S. was “locked in a new Cold War” with China that could turn hot at any time. TikTok is “potential spyware,” they wrote, that can “track cellphone users’ locations and collect internet-browsing data,” which it could then share with the Chinese government. The politicians warned that TikTok is a “major threat to U.S. national security.” Information collected on the site could be used for “blackmail or espionage.”
Gallagher adopted a more moralistic tone in a recent interview with Fox News, calling TikTok “digital fentanyl, addicting our kids.” Such panic has been taking on a bipartisan tone of late, with Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, stating, “It’s one of the very few areas where Donald Trump may have been right.”
The former President famously tried to ban TikTok in 2020 under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), part of an apparent plan to pressure ByteDance to sell off TikTok to a U.S. company. The IEEPA allows the President to declare a “national emergency” and use broad regulatory powers over economic transactions to deal with “any unusual and extraordinary threat . . . to the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.”
Both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU denounced Trump’s action as violating the First Amendment rights of its American users. Ultimately, federal courts in Washington, DC and Pennsylvania ruled that Trump’s order violated sections of the IEEPA exempting the importation or exportation of First Amendment-protected “informational materials” or personal communications, that do not involve a transfer of anything of value.
But what failed under Trump might succeed if certain politicos get their way.
TikTok execs claim that the parent company does not share data with the Chinese government and that all data collected from users in the U.S. is now kept exclusively on American servers.
But in June, BuzzFeed revealed that it had obtained leaked audio “from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings,” which indicated that “China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users — exactly the type of behavior that inspired former President Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app in the United States.”
TikTok has been in negotiations with U.S. authorities for some time about security concerns. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the talks have been “delayed.” In its piece on the Journal‘s report, CNBC quotes policy analysts as saying they think TikTok will stay in the U.S. market, but there’s a “40% chance” of an outright ban in 2023.
Is the rage to ban TikTok legit? Certainly, China’s government is tyrannical and brutally represses its own people, as do many countries that the U.S. does business with. TikTok has also been caught censoring speech critical of China, and there are concerns that it could be used to spy on Chinese students abroad.
On the other hand, censorship bites, and banning TikTok would effectively ban a whole swath of speech from millions of Americans who obviously enjoy the platform. Also, it wouldn’t solve the issues of online privacy or of hostile foreign entities (or hostile U.S. entities, for that matter) having access to the personal data of Americans.
TechDirt writer Karl Bode makes this point every time he writes about efforts to censor TikTok, as in his recent piece about the South Dakota governor’s performative “banning” of the service.
Bode explained that:
You could ban TikTok tomorrow nationwide and the Chinese government could simply pivot on a dime and pay any of several dozen dodgy data brokers for most of the same data without issue. South Dakota government employees still have dozens of apps and services on their phones collecting an ocean of browsing, clickstream, or location data that then sell it to any nitwit with a nickel. That’s before you get to all the feebly-secured Chinese-based “smart home” hardware that oddly never warrants anywhere near the same attention.
And Bode has little patience for “the policymakers freaking out about the Chinese potentially getting access to TikTok user data,” observing that they are the same pols who have “fought tooth and nail against the U.S. having even a baseline privacy law for the Internet era.” The result has been “a data broker privacy hellscape completely free of accountability,” one rife with “an endless parade of scandals, hacks, and breaches.”
What if ByteDance were to sell TikTok to a U.S.-owned company, which would presumably address the objections of the would-be censors? As Bode makes plain, the new owners could then sell users’ data to brokers who in turn could sell all of it to China or any country that wants it.
So what’s the point of banning TikTok? Well, U.S. politicians love quick fixes to difficult problems, even if those fixes don’t help at all or make things worse. The problem these Senators, Congressmen, and Governors have is TikTok’s popularity and the inevitable backlash that will occur if they somehow pull off what Trump was unable to do and deny the American people access to the platform.
Which, by the way, would be exactly the kind of censorship that the Chinese government engages in all the time.