Why Republican calls for TikTok bans are rooted in nonsense


For years, Republican lawmakers have relentlessly pushed for a nationwide TikTok ban, claiming it will help protect US consumer privacy and national security.

But these same lawmakers have a long and deep history of fighting sensible privacy laws, supporting government surveillance of citizens, and sealing off US companies’ ties to China.

And instead of trying to tackle these problems head-on, they’re pushing for a lazy, short-lived solution that will allow the next big app to cause the same big problems they’re so afraid of now.

It’s a false reform movement that shouldn’t thrive on a savvy digital population.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr have made headlines and television appearances in the past year to insist that TikTok poses an imminent and unique threat to the US public.

Proponents of a broad ban claim the hugely popular video app is ripe for abuse by the Chinese government, either through exploiting the data the app collects or through its ability to influence impressionable young Americans.

“China hates us,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) recently proclaimed before announcing a ban on TikTok on all state devices. “They manipulate their algorithms to gather information about American citizens that they can use against us. Here in the state of South Dakota, we acted.”

Despite repeated, but often ambiguous and unproven, claims that TikTok poses a unique threat to the platform’s 80 million US users, experts suggest there is little hard evidence that the Chinese government used TikTok to conduct operations on US Engage in influence on a large scale, whether by manipulating the platform’s algorithms or actively engaging in the manipulation of platform trends.

Employees at TikTok-owner ByteDance have been caught quickly and easily playing with consumer data, going so far as to access the accounts of several US journalists to track down press leaks. But such breaches are becoming increasingly common in big tech, telecom, adtech and other industries that are only casually overseen by apathetic US regulators.

Instead, TikTok’s privacy shortcomings have been highlighted as part of a growing moral and xenophobic panic in Republican circles, where everything from efforts to improve the energy efficiency of gaming consoles to inclusive candy branding routinely leads to fabricated culture war outrages to keep party loyalists at bay constant state of excitement.

Republican governors banned TikTok on government employee devices. 23 publicly-funded colleges in six Republican-leaning states have banned the app from their networks, though such bans are easy for users to circumvent by simply accessing the app using cellular data.

But any claim against it, from algorithmic manipulation to data collection, are issues the same leaders at home are unwilling to address. Many have fought tooth and nail against any meaningful privacy laws, or any meaningful oversight over tech executives and telecom companies caught playing with consumer data, be it domestic or international.

Blackburn and her GOP allies worked tirelessly to eliminate broadband privacy rules at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would protect consumer data. And the FCC’s Carr, which has no power to regulate TikTok, has largely declined to consistently hold the US telecom giants accountable for their widespread collection and misuse of consumer data.

Republican critics of TikTok are OK with widespread data breaches and uncontrolled surveillance – assuming US companies and government agencies are the ones doing it. Most of TikTok’s Republican critics backed legislation like the EARN IT Act, a bill critics say largely undermines encryption and privacy online.

When Republican TikTok critics introduce privacy laws, the result is high-powered bills that, in many cases, do more harm than good.

Blackburn’s Kids Online Safety Act has been widely criticized for undermining children’s privacy. The Senator’s BROWSER Act was similarly criticized for attempting to create a simulacrum of real oversight that was impossible to implement.

Neither bill passed, which seems irrelevant to Blackburn, who is now harping on a bigger “concern”.

There are good reasons for it. Experts suggest the GOP hysteria over TikTok has proved a useful distraction from the fact that the US government has failed to take a stand against the tech industry and pass meaningful privacy laws.

But issues of content moderation and consumer privacy — which Republicans reportedly want to address after the sins of 2020 — are complicated problems that require thoughtful solutions. In contrast, banning a single app is superficial and lazy. Banning TikTok — but doing little to address the conditions that have led to more widespread exploitation of lax US privacy standards — doesn’t solve the real problem.

“These bans will have little impact on the overall privacy landscape – only comprehensive privacy legislation that applies to data collectors across the board will do that,” David Greene, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Daily Dot.

The app’s popularity is volatile. The continued success of TikTok is not guaranteed, and with a heavy fixation on the problems of a single app rather than broader privacy reform, there is absolutely nothing stopping future iterations of TikTok, or any number of foreign and domestic apps, from abusing consumer privacy.

US consumer phones are routinely filled with myriad apps and services that suck up everything from your daily location and facial recognition data to your daily browsing and shopping habits, and then sell that data to a variety of often shady and barely regulated data brokers and international governments. The entire US wireless industry has been caught collecting and selling granular user location data with few sensible safeguards. This data was then misused by everyone from stalkers to people pretending to be law enforcement. As a result of the attack on abortion rights, data collected on American women’s reproductive choices was bought and sold on the open market without safeguards.

The Republican response to these scandals has been, with fleeting exceptions, a collective yawn.

America’s lax oversight of consumer privacy and security has created a paradigm in which widespread abuse of privacy is not only common, but the accepted norm. TikTok, like countless other tech, adtech, and telecom companies, is less interested in overthrowing the US government than in exploiting this regulatory vacuum to dramatically increase its estimated $18 billion in annual advertising revenue.

“It is noteworthy that few of those who want to ban TikTok over stated privacy concerns have taken steps to address privacy concerns that have been raised in numerous other contexts, both online and offline,” Greene said. “We see too little momentum towards privacy legislation at the state or federal level, and too little enthusiasm to address the issue of government access to user data more broadly.”

TikTok’s ban may make headlines, but it would only be effective if coupled with major policy reform that actually addresses American privacy.

Republicans don’t offer that. In fact, even their bolder solutions to TikTok would tie the company just as tightly to China, their supposed fear.

Both the Biden and Trump administrations attempted to outsource data to Oracle, despite the company having a long history of its own widespread data breaches and a history of helping Chinese law enforcement conduct repressive surveillance work.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March as calls for the app to be banned grow louder. While politicians will be quick to condemn the app, American netizens would be better off looking inward.


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https://www.dailydot.com/debug/tiktok-bans-republicans-colleges-china/ Why Republican calls for TikTok bans are rooted in nonsense

Jaclyn Diaz

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