Editor’s note: Evan Greer is an activist, writer and musician based in Boston. She is the director of the digital rights group. Fight for the futureand a regular commentator on issues related to technology policy, LGBTQ communities and human rights. Follow her on Twitter @evan_greer or mastodon @[email protected]. Rread more opinions on CNN.
The US government is rushing with proposals aimed at banning TikTok, the viral video platform used by over 150 million Americans. Officials say it’s a matter of national security and urgently point to TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and its ties to China.
While some may be motivated by thinly veiled xenophobia, lawmakers are also right to point out concerns about TikTok surveillance and a capitalistic business model that collects as much personal information about users as possible and then uses it to provide content that makes us click. , scroll through, and generate ad revenue. TikTok is “spying” on us for profit. It’s not a question.
The problem is that Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter may not be owned by a Chinese company. do it too, as privacy advocates have been warning for over a decade. Banning TikTok will not protect us from China’s surveillance operations. It also won’t protect kids or anyone else from being addicted to Big Tech’s manipulative products. It’s just an inefficient solution that sounds good on TV.
While many governments engage in internet censorship and observation, China certainly has one of the most complex and draconian systems. A key feature of China’s censorship regime is the “Great Firewall,” which blocks foreign social media applications, news sites, and even educational resources such as Wikipedia under the pretense of protecting national security.
While they’re hyperventilating over TikTok, American politicians are so eager to appear “tough on China” that they suggest we build our own Great Firewall here at home. Yes small but growing a number of countries in the world are so authoritarian that they completely block popular apps and websites. It’s unfortunate that so many US legislators want to add us to that list.
Several proposals passed through Congress will give the federal government unprecedented new powers to control what technologies we can use and how we can express our thoughts — powers that go far beyond TikTok. Bipartisan RESTRICTION Act (S. 686), for example, would allow the Department of Commerce to engage in extraordinary policing by criminalizing a wide range of activities with companies from “hostile” countries, and possibly even banning entire apps simply by declaring them a national security threat.
The law is vague enough that some experts caused concern that it could threaten individual Internet users with lengthy prison terms for taking steps to “circumvent” the ban, such as sideload app (i.e. bypassing approved app distribution channels such as the Apple Store) or using a virtual private network (VPN).
But banning TikTok is not only stupid and dangerous, it’s also unconstitutional. Robust protection of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment forbid the government from extreme actions such as the criminalization of an application that millions of people use to express their opinions and ideas. The US government cannot stop you from posting or watching videos on TikTok just as it cannot stop you from reading a foreign newspaper like the Times of India or writing an article for The Guardian.
The Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN have their own official TikTok accounts, as do numerous candidates for office, elected officials, academics, journalists, religious leaders, and political figures. Any proposal that would result in a de facto ban on TikTok in the US would almost certainly fall apart due to legal action as American Civil Liberties Union And other experts claimed. Even conservative Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky agrees that banning the app would violate Americans’ right to free speech.
Banning TikTok won’t even be effective: the Chinese government could buy much of the same information from data brokerswhich are largely unregulated in the US.
The rush to ban TikTok—or force it to be sold to a US company—is a convenient distraction from what our elected officials must do to protect us from government manipulation and commercial surveillance: enacting core data privacy legislation. It’s a question known fact that Instagram, YouTube, Venmo, Snapchat and most other apps on your phone are involved in similar data collection business practices on TikTok. Some even worse.
So it’s not just TikTok. Much of what you do tracked in the digital space on all your devices. Companies involved in this practice claim to track users’ online activities in order to to provide more targeted advertising and content.
Many companies sell data they harvest the crops to third parties who sell them to fourth, fifth and sixth parties. While companies collect this data for profit and to drive users to their products, governments have long shown interest in it.
The only way to stop governments from weap*nizing the data that private companies like TikTok collect and store about us is to stop those companies from collecting and storing so much information in the first place. You can’t do it with censorship. You do this by enacting strict national data privacy law, which prohibits companies from collecting more data about us than they need to provide us with the requested service.
Instead of helping big tech get bigger by banning a big competitor, Congress should also pass antitrust laws to crack down on anticompetitive practices. This would give worried parents and Internet users who want to ditch TikTok and Instagram more choice, and would also reduce the power of the biggest platforms, making them harder to use and manipulate by governments. It is much more difficult for attackers, whether corporate trolls or government agents, to control information on a constellation of smaller platforms, each with their own rules and algorithms, than it is to poison the well when there is a tiny handful of companies controlling access to information.
US lawmakers and officials are of particular concern. raised is that the Chinese government could pressure TikTok to increase its propaganda, or otherwise change its algorithm to advance government interests. This is not an entirely baseless argument.
We know that the Russ*an government has effectively manipulated information about facebook during the 2016 elections, the US historically engaged similar behavior Abroad. Consider, for example, the history of the United States in impact on election results in Latin America or disinformation campaigns by US allies after the Arab Spring. State-supported disinformation campaigns are happening on a massive scale and across all major platforms. We are fighting this by demanding more transparency and accountability, not more censorship.
It’s a national shame that we don’t have a basic data privacy law in the United States. And it is a travesty that we continue to allow unregulated technological monopolies to trample on our rights. Every day our elected officials spend wringing their hands and spreading moral panic about what kids are doing on TikTok is another day we are left vulnerable and unprotected.
With any luck, Washington’s TikTok hysteria will quickly subside. Let’s hope that the next hot new trend in the nation’s capital will be the adoption of real laws that protect people, starting with tough privacy and antitrust laws.