There’s cause for alarm with TikTok — but is it enough to justify building America’s own Great Firewall?
Back in the ancient days of July 2009, I was in Harbin, in Heilongjiang province, when the Chinese government banned Facebook and Twitter.
I was in college doing a Mandarin language study, and the months after that ban are the most distinctly American that I have ever felt. I spent the rest of the year accessing my friends’ status updates through Tor and an increasingly shady series of VPNs, constantly bemused by the experience of typing an address into a browser and being unable to reach it. This was the World Wide Web! The information superhighway! And here I was, walled off from a huge section of it in the name of being protected from the dangers of information itself.
It’s hard to describe how strange it feels to sit in New York City in 2023 watching American politicians propose fighting Chinese authoritarianism with their own social media ban.
Last Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in an abrasive hearing that mainly revealed one thing: Congress really, really wants to ban TikTok. Several members made gestures at the idea that this was part of some larger “Big Tech” accountability push, but they spent far more time finding grammatically creative ways to insert the word “communist” into sentences. A prevailing attitude seemed to be something like “we can’t do anything else to govern tech companies, so why not this?”Banning TikTok is not a signal we’re about to get real tech reform
Banning TikTok is not, as lawmakers claimed in the hearing, a sign that we’re about to get real tech reform. It will almost certainly be a PR move that lets some of the same politicians who profess outrage at TikTok get back to letting everyone from Comcast to the DMV sell your personal information, looking the other way while cops buy records of your movements or arrest you using faulty facial recognition and getting mad you’re allowed to have encryption that prevents the FBI (and probably also foreign governments) from hacking your phone. And it will be a PR move that betrays America’s supposed commitment to free expression in the face of an increasingly splintered internet — born out of a failure to think bigger than one disfavored app.
It’s almost impossible to tell how grounded the national security concerns about TikTok are in solid evidence. It’s definitely true that the Chinese government exercises tight control over the country’s technology industry, when it’s not busy disappearing tech investors. Some of its tech companies have helped construct a nightmare surveillance state that’s facilitating genocide. And there is almost nothing TikTok can do to prove American user data isn’t vulnerable to Chinese government surveillance in some way, despite its elaborate attempts to let Oracle host its data. As long as TikTok is connected to Chinese parent company ByteDance, the possibility is there.
It’s much easier, however, to conclude that the concrete benefit of America banning TikTok for all citizens is dubious. From a privacy perspective, much of what Chinese authorities would likely want from TikTok (including very detailed geolocation data) is readily available from American data brokers. Phones are already little surveillance machines with or without TikTok, and there are countless other ways to get information off of them. So far, there’s more concrete evidence of Tim Hortons secretly tracking the average app user than TikTok.“The TikTok ban is a betrayal of the open internet” by Adi Robertson — Technopreneurph
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