The government wants me to delete TikTok from my phone. How else am I going to keep tabs on the (definitely manufactured) romance between Bad Bunny and Kendall Jenner, aka “Candle Jenga” on the app?
In all seriousness, there seem to be crucial holes in the public narrative about a potential US ban on TikTok, the uber popular video app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, over national security concerns.
What happened to enacting stricter regulations for other apps like Facebook and Instagram? What about cracking down on the data brokerage industry, a multibillion-dollar global behemoth that operates mostly in the shadows and that traffics loads of personal data gleaned from users’ digital footprints and other sources?
It amounts to more than simplistic whataboutism. Those questions should be front and center as the threat coming from Washington to ban TikTok inches closer to reality. On Wednesday, the Biden administration gave TikTok’s Chinese owners an ultimatum: Sell your stakes or face a nationwide ban. TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, will testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce next week to answer questions from lawmakers on security concerns.
I can’t help but notice the vast disconnect in the ban-TikTok discourse. On one hand, the short-video platform’s user base in the United States is massive at more than 100 million customers, primarily teens and young adults. A recent Morning Consult survey found that nearly 7 in 10 Gen Zers said they use TikTok, a share that’s increased 21 percentage points from a 2020 survey. For them, a ban might be a hard sell — how is someone’s “For You” page, the personalized feed that TikTok shows each user based on a notoriously secretive algorithm, a national security threat? Then there’s the huge economic value the app holds for brands and content creators.
On the other hand, there are the elected politicians and government officials threatening to ban the Beijing-based platform. That feels out of context with the app’s core content. TikTok is, first and foremost, a channel of clever entertainment that ranges from the profoundly silly to the helpful. My “For You” page is filled with dog influencers and videos of people falling in the most random of ways because is there anything funnier than that? It’s also given me a sense of community: My dogs are TikTok-famous and have more than 117,000 followers, which gives me access to the app’s content creator fund. In nearly two years, my dogs have made a couple hundred dollars — hardly enough to pay for their treat supply.
The government’s concerns about the app center around the risk that the Chinese government is accessing TikTok user data. On Friday, The New York Times reported that the Justice Department is investigating TikTok for possible surveillance of American users. The probe seems to be related to a December admission by ByteDance that some employees had inappropriately obtained the data of a small number of US TikTok customers, including two journalists.
The United Kingdom and New Zealand are the latest countries to enact bans on the app on government-issued devices, following other European countries and the United States. That’s a sensible step. But a nationwide ban on a product used by more than 100 million Americans feels like an outsized, unnecessary measure. When former president Donald Trump tried to ban new downloads of TikTok from US app stores in 2020, the move was eventually blocked by two federal judges.
As others have argued, if the Chinese government really wants access to US consumer data, a nationwide ban won’t help. That’s because, right now, there is someone in some part of the world already collecting and selling all kinds of personal information on all of us that China can easily buy. This marketplace of granular databases operates pretty much unchecked. Data privacy experts have been sounding the alarm for a while about data brokerage firms, “the unchecked middlemen of surveillance capitalism,” as one analyst described them.
Here’s an astonishing number: Acxiom, a US-based large data broker, reportedly had 1,500 pieces of personal information on roughly two-thirds of Americans — from travel preferences to real estate and auto loan information. The kicker? That’s from a 2014 news report. The United States is woefully behind on data privacy law. Cybersecurity experts have argued before Congress about the need to protect US confidential personal data, regardless of where the risk comes from, by establishing basic standards on what data can be collected and retained.
Still, it’s hard for Congress to find a better target than TikTok. As a political talking point, the notion of banning a Chinese-owned social media app resonates with certain constituencies. But political symbolism is not an effective way to make policy. And it could also backfire: To some Americans, banning such a product would amount to censorship. Axios reported that in a focus group with Wisconsin swing voters, a participant said: “All of a sudden it’s pretty close to becoming a dictatorship” if “the government is telling you what you can and can’t watch; what you can have on your phone, what you can’t have on your phone.”
Ultimately, if Congress and the Biden administration have learned something truly nefarious about TikTok, it behooves them to make a better case for banning it for Americans. In the meantime, hands off my TikTok.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.