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The Push to Ban TikTok in the US Isn’t About Privacy

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Feb 23, 2023 7:00 AM

The Push to Ban TikTok in the US Isn’t About Privacy

Lawmakers are increasingly hellbent on punishing the popular social network while efforts to pass a broader privacy law have dwindled.

Fresh off their successful effort to ban TikTok on government devices last year, China hawks in the US Congress are looking to expand that ban further, even as lawmakers continue allowing US companies to scoop up Americans’ data and share or sell it with third parties—potentially including China’s government.

The irony is largely lost on many in Congress. Lawmakers are renewing their calls for a nationwide TikTok ban and pushing the Biden administration to force a breakup of the Chinese-owned tech company. Meanwhile, efforts to pass a national privacy law, which failed last year, have largely evaporated.

International balloon politics have only complicated TikTok’s rapidly deflating US future.

“If you’re certainly willing to fly a balloon over your continental airspace—and have people see it with a naked eye—what would make you not weaponize data? Or use an app that’s on the phone of 60 million Americans to drive narratives in society that try to influence political debate in this country?” says Senate Intelligence Committee vice chair Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida.

One House Republican is now calling for Biden to “blow up TikTok,” while a Senate Democrat is bypassing the White House and calling for Apple and Google to remove it from their app stores. TikTok, which is owned by China-based ByteDance, may be the fastest-growing social media app on the planet, but that means little in Washington’s marble halls.

“There’s no question about the fact that they are trying to gather as much data as they can about all aspects of our country, and even the most minuscule, small items can add up to providing them with more data,” says Republican senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota. “There’s a huge amount of data out there, which will never be touched, never be used, but it’s the small pieces that add up. They are working it. They are patient. But they clearly see us as a threat, and they’re collecting data.”

Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, says the “operating premise” for staunch TikTok critics in Congress is that we can trust US-based tech firms with Americans’ data while ByteDance—and, by extension, TikTok—is inherently untrustworthy because of its ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). “But it may not always be factually true,” Warner says, “since we've seen some of these large [US] companies sell that data to third parties.”

Regardless, anti-TikTok—and, more broadly, anti-China—fervor has hit a fever pitch. In response, the company hired some 40 Washington lobbyists in recent months, and TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew stormed Capitol Hill this month in an attempt to sway members of Congress his way. Lawmakers were unimpressed and unmoved.

“None of the suggested … efforts were particularly relevant to my concerns,” senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat of Colorado, told congressional reporters after hosting Chew in his office last week.

The effort to prohibit the popular app on government devices has gained momentum at the state level, with TikTok bans now in place in more than half of state governments, plus bans on many public university networks. Federal lawmakers hopped on that bandwagon just ahead of the holidays when they sent President Joe Biden a government funding bill loaded up with lawmaker’s pet projects, including a TikTok ban on federal government devices.

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“I think there’s a lot of forward progress, and the fact that TikTok is all over the Hill, lobbying furiously, I think it’s a good sign,” says Republican senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a vocal critic of Silicon Valley firms who also recently introduced legislation that would ban TikTok in the US.

While e-isolationism is now en vogue when it comes to the CCP, US tech companies continue to write their own rules. The internet is built on the premise that data is currency, which is why Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others have invested countless millions on lobbyists in recent years. The status quo is a windfall for these tech giants.

Rubio has also proposed a nationwide TikTok ban, but his measure is broader than Hawley’s. The Florida senator’s ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act would ban TikTok along with any other social media apps “influenced” by China or other foreign adversaries, like Russia. He says protecting Americans from TikTok is more urgent than the need for Congress to pass even basic privacy standards for US tech companies.

“Privacy, and the privacy of our data, in and of itself, is an issue that should be confronted, but the fact that a foreign government could gain immediate access on-demand to a massive trove of American data rises to a completely different level,” Rubio says. “Just a completely different level. And not just a foreign government but our chief adversary and competitor in the world.”

Besides TikTok’s ties to China, US politicians are fretting over the sophistication of the app’s video recommendation algorithm. Part of the app’s addictive appeal is its ability to seamlessly predict which videos a person wants to watch—some of which users don’t even know they like until the app’s For You page convinces them otherwise.

TikTok critics in Congress fear everyday Americans—and a handful of politicians, including former House Intelligence chair Adam Schiff—are unwittingly playing into the most sweeping psyops ever launched. That’s because TikTok doesn’t just scoop up users’ data, they say; it can also influence their tastes by manipulating emotions. The app’s political critics argue that TikTok nudges, tweaks, and eventually outright changes user behavior. Anti-TikTok policymakers fear China’s strategically focused on the long game, while America’s not even on the battlefield yet.

“Data’s the most valuable commodity in the world. To have virtually all of the data on over 50 million American devices accessed daily by the Communist Party of China will pose an indescribable risk to America’s national security, to our economy, to our competitiveness,” Rubio says. “Just think about the advantage. China would have information on us, their government would have information on us, that no government in the history of the world has ever had on the citizens of another country. There’s nothing to compare it to.”

According to an explosive June 2022 report from BuzzFeed News, officials in China can access Americans’ data. TikTok has proposed what company officials dub “Project Texas,” which would ostensibly put US-based firm Oracle in charge of the data TikTok collects on American users. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is currently reviewing the deal while investigating the company for national security risks.

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“We hope that Congress will explore solutions to their concerns about TikTok that won’t have the effect of censoring the voices of millions of Americans,” says TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter. “The swiftest and most thorough way to address national security concerns is for CFIUS to adopt the proposed agreement that we worked with them on for nearly two years. That plan includes layers of government and independent oversight to ensure that there are no backdoors into TikTok that could be used to access data or manipulate the platform. These measures go beyond what any peer company is doing today on security.”

Over in the House, Rubio’s tough-on-tech allies just got new job titles and powers. Representatives Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a Republican, and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, a Democrat, are now the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the new House Select Committee on China established by Speaker Kevin McCarthy. While their new roles go beyond tech and TikTok, the two are eager to use their new perch to punish TikTok, in part, for stonewalling Congress.

“Part of the reason there’s not good data is [that] TikTok hasn’t responded to basic questions,” says Gallagher, who’s advocating for TikTok to be fully divested from ByteDance. “We’ve asked for transparency around their algorithms in general. There’s this question about how they intended to use their location tracking service that they would never really answer.”

Bipartisanship has been key to anti-TikTok efforts, but conservatives—and the GOP’s powerful messaging machine—have rallied around what, to them, is a glaring new national security threat. While US tech firms are now the punching bag for America’s right who accuse them of “censoring” them, most Republicans say this TikTok debate supersedes domestic political and corporate squabbles. They say there’s no comparing Silicon Valley to ByteDance.

“Can we just admit that the Chinese Communist Party is an adversary and Silicon Valley is not an actual adversary?” says senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, a Republican. “There are similar issues, but they’re not the exact same issues. The Chinese Communist Party is an adversary. Silicon Valley is an unruly child.”

Whether the fears are warranted or ungrounded, Congress isn’t even having the right debate, according to Senate Finance Committee chair Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. “Banning TikTok would be a godsend for sleazy rip-off data brokers,” the Oregon Democrat says. “TikTok is one piece of the puzzle, but don’t miss the overall challenge—because until you reign in these data brokers … you’re going to have all kinds of people’s personal data in America still on its way to China and hostile powers.”

Nevertheless, bipartisan anti-TikTok energy remains palpable in DC, especially because the app is so popular, with around 113 million users in the US, according to web analytics firm Statista. And with Beijing’s proven willingness to use technology to control its own citizens, US policymakers fear the CCP will soon distort the world for millions of unsuspecting Americans.

“If you can dial these algorithms to say what kind of content [people see], it’s hugely problematic in terms of a propaganda tool,” Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee chair, says.

Warner supports reining TikTok in, but he remains skeptical of these new efforts to outright ban the app. He’s been left holding his tongue while awaiting more detailed information and a potential policy solution from the Justice Department. It’s not an either-or, though, according to privacy advocates in Congress. While they argue TikTok is the immediate concern, they also want to regulate Silicon Valley.

“I think there’s a need for both. We still need to get a big privacy bill,” Democratic senator Maria Cantwell of Washington says.

Cantwell chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which is where many of these bipartisan efforts have died, in part because she’s demanded a higher federal privacy standard—or at least one that doesn’t supersede stout state laws, like California’s—than Republicans have been willing to accept. She says the reason the TikTok ban sailed through in December is that the government funding bill was “held hostage over it” by the GOP.

“With Big Data, there can be abuses, and we need to rein it in. Period,” Cantwell says. “There’s just a lot more work to be done, and my colleagues have to have the same bipartisan zeal to address those issues.”

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