Amongst fears that the Chinese Communist Party has access to covert information, the UK government recently banned government employees from having TikTok. However, although data fears are valid, the ban may also set a dangerous precedent for completely overriding the opinions of a vast population: young people.
Notably, TikTok does have many unnecessary permissions granted by default. For example, according to the Guardian, TikTok can “collect user contact lists, access calendars, scan hard drives including external ones and geo-locate devices on an hourly basis.” Considering that these functions are entirely irrelevant to the app’s function, it would certainly appear that this information is solely for data harvesting.
It is also true that China has utilised the seemingly innocuous app to gather data about people of political interest. Despite TikTok’s vehement rebuttals of this point, The Chinese Communist Party necessitates the cooperation of private companies according to the National Intelligence Law of 2017, and in one leaked recording of an internal meeting, a member of the company’s trust and safety department admitted that “everything is seen by China.” This statement, coupled with reports that employees at parent company ByteDance have planned to track American citizens using the app, renders spyware fears credible.
“The logic behind a TikTok ban is thus political scapegoating as the UK joins its EU neighbours and America in freezing out Chinese companies as the latest casualty in the new Cold War.”
At the same time, META and other social networking sites also sell your data; it is the mechanism through which social media sites make profit. In 2018, Facebook confirmed that it has a data-sharing partnership with Chinese firms like Huawei, which US intelligence agencies have flagged as a potential security threat. Other Chinese companies also pioneer products that allow access to the data of European and American consumers. The logic behind a TikTok ban is thus political scapegoating as the UK joins its EU neighbours and America in freezing out Chinese companies as the latest casualty in the new Cold War.
Certainly, the latest Congressional hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew recalled earlier days of anti-Communist measures. Speaker Kevin McCarthy referred to China’s nefarious “technological tentacles” and—in equating an app perhaps best known for pioneering TikTok dances to an eldritch update to Lovecraft—impressively managed to hit similar notes to an earlier McCarthy.
However, Congress and pro-ban government officials are out of tune. Representatives, at times competing during the hearing to mention communism the maximum possible times in a sentence, voiced concern about harm to children such as the promotion of damaging mental health content. On March 24, Governor of Utah, Spencer Cox, banned under 18s from social media without express parental consent.
Yet the ban should not operate under the guise of protecting young people when this population would be harmed the most. Along with content damaging young people’s self-esteem, TikTok can also recommend resources to help. It is also the primary source of income for many individuals and has helped small businesses and communities with pandemic recovery. On the political front, it has mobilised and invigorated young voters.
Within the US, the bipartisan RESTRICT (Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology) act sets a dangerous precedent for eliminating free speech, allowing the Executive Branch to “authorise the Secretary of Commerce to review and prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries, and for other purposes.” The act would empower a complete ban on all technologies deemed threats to national security, removing TikTok from the app store and rendering it nonfunctional on US phone plans. To combat an authoritarian state notorious for restricting free speech, the US is moving to limit free speech because the content is objectionable, rather than for the actual political cause.
“A more pragmatic solution than banning TikTok may be to introduce more regulations.”
A more pragmatic solution than banning TikTok may be to introduce more regulations. Again, we can view Facebook’s history as an example of this less extreme approach. In 2014, UK firm Cambridge Analytica acquired the data of millions of users from Russia in service of an unknown entity strongly suspected to be the Russian state itself. Facebook responded by banning Cambridge Analytica and by introducing more significant metrics to ensure privacy protection, in 2015 restricting apps from having access to all user data and in 2018 complying with the GDPR or General Data Protection Regulation, the European data protection law that regulates the way companies store data and requires them to disclose news of a data breach within 72 hours.
To many, reform is a compelling prospect, especially considering that TikTok has a plan to combat potential data theft. To ensure greater data security, TikTok announced Project Texas in the US and Project Clover in Europe, which security experts say would largely eliminate the threat of unauthorised access by rerouting US and European traffic to data centres in Texas and Europe respectively (Project Clover will entail two data centres in Dublin) and allowing US and European security companies to have oversight.
Undoubtedly, TikTok needs to be in full compliance with the recent Digital Services Act (DSA) and the aforementioned GDPR. So how do these regulations encourage greater transparency? The DSA requires social media platforms to quickly react and remove content in violation of EU practices. The GDPR shapes social media marketing in several key ways. Retargeting ads are a vital component of business promotion, and their function necessitates access to user data about browsing patterns, purchase history and demographics. For social media platforms to comply with the regulatory standards of the GDPR, they must gain consent before running retargeting ads. In addition, EU consumers must accept cookies, which are pieces of data that help servers remember information and thus curate targeted ads, and privacy notices explaining how one’s data will be utilised.
Perhaps then US lawmakers would do well to refrain from burning TikTok at the stake—a complete ban—and instead work to establish similar regulations. As it is, data privacy is clearly not just a TikTok issue as under the GDPR, from 2018–2020 alone, 126 million euros in fines were issued to companies marketing to EU consumers. We should also remember that all social media platforms and many other apps have access to user data — China has been known to track users through apps for subjects as innocuous as the weather to gain access to geographic location, email addresses and IMEI personal device information numbers.
So perhaps this ban should spark a greater conversation on data privacy at large. However, this outcome seems unlikely as TikTok has become a battleground for competing ideologies and fears about Chinese misinformation and spyware. US lawmakers can collaborate with Tiktok, establish protocol for data collection and at minimum provide additional information about the level of national security risk posed to the public. But will they? Not while the spectre of China, whose “technological tentacles” chase running and screaming lawmakers across two continents, remains.