Apps & Mobile

As Microsoft Circles, TikTok Ban Will Accomplish Nothing. Fix Security, Privacy Issues Instead. [OP-ED]

News reports point to a Microsoft acquisition of TikTok after President Trump called for an all-out ban of the wildly popular social short video app.

In the op-ed Techdirt’s Karl Bode explores why the calls to ban TikTok in the US don’t actually make sense, and that those jockeying for the ban would be better off focusing on larger issues of privacy and security endemic to the tech industry.

Guest post by Karl Bode of Techdirt

Earlier this month I noted how the calls to ban TikTok didn’t make a whole lot of sense. For one thing, a flood of researchers have shown that TikTok isn’t doing anything any different than a flood of foreign and domestic services. Secondly, the majority of the most vocal pearl clutchers over the app (Josh Hawley, etc.) haven’t cared a whit about things like consumer privacy or internet security, suggesting it’s more about politics than policy. The wireless industry SS7 flaw? US cellular location data scandals? The rampant lack of any privacy or security standards in the internet of things? The need for election security funding?

Most of the folks hyperventilating about TikTok haven’t made so much as a peep on these other subjects. Either you actually care about consumer privacy and internet security or you don’t, and a huge swath of those hyperventilating about TikTok have been utterly absent from the broader conversation. In fact, many of them have done everything in their power to scuttle any effort to have even modest privacy guidelines for the internet era, and fought every effort to improve and properly fund election security. Again, that’s because, for many it’s more about politics than serious, adult tech policy.

That’s not to say there aren’t security concerns when it comes to installing Chinese-made apps on American devices, but that same argument can be made (but somehow isn’t) for an absolute ocean of foreign and domestic services, hardware, and apps. Over the weekend, Kevin Roose at the New York Times made some similar points, noting that things tend to get stupid when you fuse politics with policy and domestic financial interests with national security (especially given lobbyists adore taking advantage of the lack of transparency in the latter):

“There are also reasons to be skeptical of the motives of TikTok’s biggest critics. Many conservative politicians, including Mr. Trump, appear to care more about appearing tough on China than preventing potential harm to TikTok users. And Silicon Valley tech companies like Facebook, whose executives have warned of the dangers of a Chinese tech takeover, would surely like to see regulators kneecap one of their major competitors.”

It took a while for this opinion to form out of the internet news and policy murk, but it’s nice to see folks realizing that banning TikTok, but doing nothing about an absolute ocean of foreign and domestic hardware, services, and apps that pose similar threats, is kind of pointless and stupid:

“I’ll be honest: I don’t buy the argument that TikTok is an urgent threat to America’s national security. Or, to put it more precisely, I am not convinced that TikTok is inherently more threatening to Americans than any other Chinese-owned app that collects data from Americans. If TikTok is a threat, so are WeChat, Alibaba and League of Legends, the popular video game, whose maker, Riot Games, is owned by China’s Tencent.

And since banning every Chinese-owned tech company from operating in America wouldn’t be possible without erecting our own version of China’s Great Wall — a drastic step that would raise concerns about censorship and authoritarian control — we need to figure out a way for Chinese apps and American democracy to coexist.”

But the piece goes a step further in smartly arguing that if you want to deter TikTok-esque privacy issues, you’re better off fixing the underlying rot that has resulted in the cavalier treatment of consumer data. And using TikTok as an example of how to do security and privacy oversight correctly, you start by forcing the company to embrace open source, by finally getting off our collective, befuddled asses and passing a basic but tough US privacy law, by demanding greater transparency of TikTok (and every other company), and by ending our myopic view of security and privacy:

“I think TikTok is a bit of a red herring,” Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer and a professor at Stanford University, told me in an interview. Ultimately, Mr. Stamos said, the question of what to do about TikTok is secondary to the question of how multinational tech giants in general should be treated.

“This is a chance to come up with a thoughtful model of how to regulate companies that operate in both the U.S. and China, no matter their ownership,” he said.”

Granted that requires nuance and a holistic view of the real problem, and that’s the last thing most of the folks crying about TikTok want. And they don’t want that because they’re not genuinely interested in consumer privacy and internet security, they’re interested in putting on a little stage play for political reasons. Adult, good faith tech policy solutions that solve actual, real world problems is the very last thing on most of their minds.

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