Banning TikTok Won’t Fix the Problem

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I love being an American. I have so many freedoms that other humans do not: the freedom to criticize my government! The freedom to call myself an “American” in a YouTube video, knowing that it will infuriate certain pedants who will start screaming about how America is several continents! The freedom to use whatever apps I want! Did you know that in China, residents can’t even use Facebook? Facebook! Just a silly little app for talking with your friends! It’s because the authoritarian government of China is terrified of free speech, because if Chinese citizens have easy access to Western media they will be brainwashed into wanting more freedom and democracy. You know, the things I enjoy. As an American. Anyway, let’s see what my Congressional representatives are up to these days:

“A potential ban of TikTok in the United States sailed through the House of Representatives over the weekend as part of a $95 billion foreign aid package that garnered bipartisan support.

“The social media crackdown may stand poised to become law, since President Joe Biden has vowed to sign it if it passes the Senate and reaches his desk.”

Ah. Well. Nevertheless.

Okay, so I have in fact used TikTok though I generally find it annoying and not interesting. But that’s hardly a reason to ban it from the whole country, right? I mean, I also find Taylor Swift annoying and not interesting but it should still be legal to buy her albums. Because this is AMERICA.

And why only TikTok? There are certainly issues with how social media collects and uses our data, for instance, but what is it that makes TikTok worse than, say, Facebook, or Xitter? Well, because of China, apparently:

“Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.), an ardent supporter of the ban, urged the House on Thursday to pass the updated TikTok bill.

“For years, I’ve been raising the alarm about the powerful national security threat posed by TikTok, and I strongly support their divestiture from a company legally required to do the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party,” Warner said. 

“Proponents say a ban is necessary to prevent the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from accessing American user data, which they worry could be used to spy on users or manipulate their interests.”

Ah, of course! In order to prevent the authoritarian regime from manipulating American’s smooth brains, we must create our own authoritarian regime to stop them. 

So, some people will argue that this isn’t a true “ban,” because first they’re giving the company a year to sell TikTok to someone else, someone more…American. But if they don’t, at that point a ban would go into effect. That means that our government would force Apple and Google to remove the app from their stores, which means that new users can’t download it and existing users can no longer get updates, unless of course they use a VPN. A VPN could make it look like they’re trying to access the app from a different, more free country, but the average TikTok user is absolutely not going to bother with that. I speak from experience on this: when the US government decided to crack down on online poker by throwing a bunch of legal obstacles in the way of players, 99% of users stopped playing and the only people left were the ones who were making decent money and so were incentivized to go through those obstacles. And that, my friends, made online poker super not fun anymore, effectively banning it.

So yeah, it’s totally fine to call this a looming TikTok ban. It’s also fine to call it something else: a xenophobic, possibly unconstitutional distraction to make people think our politicians give a shit about our privacy and our exposure to blatant disinformation as they steadfastly refuse to take any real action to protect us from either.

Because here’s the thing: yes, TikTok SUCKS. They collect as much data as they can on users, including voice, face, and location data, they have previously censored anti-Chinese government topics like Falun Gong, and they’ve even had employees access sensitive user data, like when a Financial Times journalist learned that they were spying on her because she had written articles critical of the company in the past.

But you can say exactly the same about other social media companies, as Julia Angwin wrote for the New York Times in March: Facebook helped incite a genocide in Myanmar, Xitter censors criticism of Elon Musk, Google has fired dozens of employees for accessing private data, and misinformation runs rampant everywhere. If the Chinese government wants to sway gullible Americans’ opinions they don’t need TikTok when they can just as easily do it on Facebook, like the Russian government does. And if they want access to Americans’ private data, they can just as easily buy it from data brokers, like the US government does.

That’s right, I’m so sorry if this shocks you, but perhaps one of the reasons the US government is trying to ban TikTok instead of passing comprehensive consumer privacy laws like those recommended by the EFF and other experts is because the US government themselves are profiting from the lack of these laws. 

Data brokers are companies that collect your information, whether from bits of code in the apps you use, your social media presence, your grocery store loyalty card, or public records data. They then collect all that data together to get a really clear picture of who you are, where you go, and what you do, sometimes adding in algorithmic extra guesswork, like how long you’re going to live or who you’re going to vote for. Then they sell that package to someone else, whether that be a financial institution thinking of offering you a loan, a con artist thinking of dragging you into a pig butchering scam, or the Department of Homeland Security thinking of shipping you off to Guantanomo. And they do it legally, sort of maybe, thanks to some handy loopholes in the way they interpret the Fourth Amendment.

A report from the Brennan Center for Justice describes the problem with our government buying data from brokers instead of bothering to investigate and get warrants for that data:

“Unfettered government access to personal data without judicial or legislative oversight can exacerbate existing biases in law enforcement and intelligence practices, permitting speculative investigations on the basis of constitutionally protected categories and the targeting of marginalized communities. Evidence of this phenomenon abounds, from the Defense Department purchasing location data collected from prayer apps to monitor Muslim communities to police departments purchasing information to track racial justice protesters. As state governments continue to pass strict anti-abortion legislation — laws that disproportionately harm women of color — such misuses will only expand. And as President Biden’s recent executive order on artificial intelligence acknowledges, the integration of new AI tools will make it easier to “extract, re-identify, link, infer, and act on sensitive information about people’s identities, locations, habits, and desires,” amplifying the risks to Americans’ privacy and freedoms of speech and association.”

They end that report, which was released back in February, with a call for Congress to act quickly to close the loopholes that leave Americans at risk. Congress has answered very clearly: nope. Let’s just kill this one app instead and leave all the warrantless spying in place.

The TikTok ban is ridiculous, and dangerous: for one, it may lull the average American into thinking Congress is actually doing SOMETHING to protect them, making it even less likely we’ll get a comprehensive data privacy law any time soon. And it’s also dangerous for our democracy. Giving the president the power to ban a social media app and thereby censor speech might not seem like a big deal, but only if you forgot that Donald Trump was president for four years. And if you forgot that Biden also sucks in a lot of ways.

Anyway, if this garbage law passes, you can expect a lot of bad to come from it and meanwhile, TikTok is going to keep on existing. There’s the yearlong grace period, and then there will be legal challenges, and so on and so forth, and basically it’ll be banned around the time that some new social media app catches our collective attention and we all forget about TikTok anyway.

So if you have a chance to chat with your local congresscritter, please let them know you’d prefer they pass a comprehensive consumer privacy law instead of this weird xenophobic power trip.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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