The case against the TikTok ban bill

A year ago, I visited TikTok’s US headquarters, where its new “transparency center” is the centerpiece of a multibillion-dollar effort to convince the US that its meme factory isn’t a factory. . This attempt failed. The company’s negotiations with the government have stalled, and the company now faces the most serious threat to its future in the United States.

Last Wednesday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that, if passed, would force ByteDance to sell TikTok or face an outright ban in the United States. Lawmakers are skeptical of TikTok . Because TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in China, they believe the Chinese government could manipulate TikTok’s algorithms or access its users’ data through ByteDance employees. But what’s amazing about the Protecting Americans from Foreign Enemies Controlled Applications Act is that it managed to garner so much support from both sides of the aisle, seemingly out of nowhere.

After the surprise bipartisan bill cleared in committee approved by a unanimous vote of 50 to 0 and by the full House by a vote of 352 to 65 in less than a week. Among the dozens of bills trying to regulate the tech industry in recent years, including two TikTok, none have gained nearly as much momentum.

But the renewed support for banning or forcing the sale of TikTok does not appear to be related to any newly revealed information about TikTok, ByteDance or the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, lawmakers are repeating the same concerns raised about the app for years.

A frequently raised issue is access to information. TikTok, like many of its social media peers, collects large amounts of data from its users. The experience attracted the company when it was discovered in the past that many of those users were minors. Many lawmakers point to the large cache of user data, which they claim can be accessed by Chinese government officials, as one of the most significant risks posed by TikTok.

“Our bipartisan legislation will protect American social media users by depriving them of apps controlled by foreign adversaries to ensure Americans are protected from digital surveillance and influence regimes’ operations,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi. Co-sponsors of the bill said .

TikTok has repeatedly denied sharing any information with the Chinese government and said it would not comply if they were asked to do so. However, ByteDance has been caught mishandling TikTok user data in the past. ByteDance in 2022 To access information from reporters who wrote stories critical of the company, including two employees based in China. There is no evidence that these actions were directed by the Chinese government.

In fact, the Protecting Americans from Foreign Enemies Controlled Applications Act will do little to address the data access problem, experts say. Even if the app is banned or controlled by another company, Americans’ personal information can be easily obtained from the largely unregulated data brokerage industry.

Data brokers have access to vast collections of Americans’ personal information through numerous apps, websites, credit card companies and other businesses. There are currently few restrictions on what information can be collected or who can receive it. Biden Administration officials have warned China collect this data, much of which is more public than anything TikTok collects.

“The data that’s collected about you will almost certainly outlive you, and there’s really nothing you can do to delete it or get rid of it,” Justin Cappos, a professor of computer science at NYU and a member of the NYU Cybersecurity Center, told Engadget. “If the US really wants to solve this, the way to do it is not to blame a social media company in China and make them the face of the problem. It’s really about going after and following meaningful data privacy regulations [data] collect and go after these data brokers.”

The House of Representatives recently passed the bill data brokers from selling Americans’ personal information to “hostile” countries like China. However, if passed, the law would not address the sale of this data to other entities or the wholesale collection to begin with.

Digital rights and free speech advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have also raised the possibility that the US forcing a ban or sale of TikTok could give other countries cover to impose similar bans or restrictions on US-based social media platforms. In a letter to lawmakers opposing the measure, the EFF, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups argued it would “set a disturbing global precedent for excessive government control over social media platforms.”

David Greene, EFF’s general counsel, notes that the United States has forcefully criticized countries that ban social media applications. “The State Department has been very critical of countries that have shut down their services,” Greene told Engadget, the US for the Nigerian government in 2021. “Shutting down an entire service is actually anti-democratic.”

Conducted by intelligence authorities a About TikTok with members of Congress shortly before the House vote. This has led some experts to believe that there should be new information about TikTok, but some lawmakers have argued otherwise. “Nothing we heard in today’s confidential briefing was specific to TikTok,” said representative Sara Jacobs. . “It was what was happening on every social media platform.” Likewise, Representative Jim Hines, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, TikTok is “basically a potential threat… If Congress were serious about this threat, we would start with a federal privacy bill.”

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