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Monday, May 27, 2024

Why the government should ban TikTok

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Roughly 170 million Americans while away untold hours on TikTok, the hyper-addictive social media platform. The fact that such a large number of our citizens avail themselves of this app explains why a recent law that would ban it has been met with ferocious opposition. The law would force China-based ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to sell off the ridiculously popular app. If the sale does not occur, the law would seek to ban the app in America.

The controversial law is virtually guaranteed to face a court challenge on First Amendment grounds. Then again, TikTok has fared well against such efforts in recent years. For example, the federal judiciary blocked former president Donald Trump’s attempt to ban the app in 2020. Montana tried – and failed – to do the same.

As was the case with telecom giant Huawei a few years ago, concerns about America’s national security are at the forefront of this kerfuffle. Specifically, several legislative and national security leaders have expressed concern that the Chinese Communist Party is able to access Americans’ personal data.

Naturally, TikTok is responding to the law. In a rare on-camera interview, Vice president of Public Relations, Michael Beckerman, strongly defended the company. Mr. Beckerman flatly denied that 1) China had access to Americans’ user data and 2) that China has the ability to influence the thought patterns of American users.

Beckerman also said that Americans’ data stays in the U.S. and is protected by a TikTok subsidiary called United States Data Security, or USDS.

TikTok spent $2 billion to create this security system, which is based in Texas. As of 2022, all new user data are stored there. Oracle, one of the largest U.S. tech firms, oversees the company’s servers. Beckerman has challenged other social media platforms to make their computer code available to third parties, which is something he says that TikTok has done.

Of course, civil liberties and national security have often had a fraught relationship. In an interview with a content creator, Beckerman said, “Thankfully, we have a Constitution in (America), and people’s First Amendment rights are very important. We’ll continue to fight for you and all the other users on TikTok.”

I adamantly support the First Amendment. I also think that the law is necessary. Based on what FBI Director Christopher Wray and other national security leaders have stated about the Chinese government’s unrelenting espionage, I don’t have faith that TikTok can protect Americans’ data – even if the information is not on servers in China. Also, if nothing else, this law puts a hostile nation on notice.

Legal experts believe that ByteDance will argue in court that forcing them to break up the company could ultimately violate customers’ rights because a new owner might change TikTok’s content policies or change what users can share. Further, at an estimated valued of roughly $225 billion, there are few potential suitors. The U.S. government would likely block tech behemoths like Google or Meta from an acquisition due to antitrust concerns.

On a related note, Google is in federal court as we speak defending its search engine. The government is arguing that Google’s market dominance and financial assets create an unfair market advantage that stifles meaningful competition. One could foresee a similar argument keeping American tech titans from being cleared to buy TikTok.

Even if ByteDance ultimately agreed to a sale, it would be technologically difficult to separate TikTok. The new law prohibits any connection between the separated entities post-sale. However, TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, which discerns what users like and sends related content, is crucial to the app’s popularity. Yet, the engineers who work on that algorithm are in China. Also, TikTok employees use ByteDance software in their communications. All this means that, at this point, time appears to be on the side of TikTok users. Whatever resolution likely will not occur for several months – or even years. 

Obviously, concern about the Chinese government is the reason that so many U.S. leaders – Republicans and Democrats – support this law. In my view, their concern is legitimate. However, the fact is that the U.S. government has a very long, very racist history when it comes to Asians and Asian-Americans. There is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was extended for 10 years after it expired in 1892. In 1902, the Congress made Chinese immigration completely illegal. Further, there was the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. (Apparently, German- and Italian-Americans were inherently more “loyal”.)

Tragically, anti-Asian racism continues to this day, such as referring to COVID as “the Kung-Flu”. Thus, it is understandable that some Americans, across race and ethnicity, bristle at this law. However, I believe that any nation that acted with the determination and expertise in espionage that China has demonstrated during the last couple of decades would raise similar concerns – irrespective of the race of its people.

Changing laws in the name of national security, regardless of the purported threat, generally raises cackles among staunch civil libertarians. Yet, they are not the ones who are responsible for protecting Americans from foreign actors who would do us harm. As uncomfortable as even I can be with government overreach, this new law is necessary. I’m hopeful that our government can reach a deal with ByteDance. Otherwise, I’ll happily await TikTok’s time expiring in the U.S.

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