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The REAL reasons governments want to ban TikTok

Nations worldwide are now scrambling to set restrictions on the use of TikTok. In this op-ed, Karl Bode of techdirt explains why banning a single app may not be the best solution for cyber security…

Op-Ed by Karl Bode from techdirt

The Biden administration has given all federal agencies 30 days to ensure staffers do not have TikTok on any federal devices. All agency vendors are to adhere to the same rules within 90 days. It’s the latest evolution in a growing planetary moral panic that’s gotten well out ahead of its skis, resulting in often-performative solutions that don’t fix the actual problem.

The Biden administration memo comes at the same time as EU announced it would be banning all diplomats from having TikTok on their professional devices, with the UK being pressured to follow suit. Those responses come in the wake of numerous performative announcements that the app has been banned by numerous states and state-funded colleges

Banning a Chinese-owned app from government employee devices isn’t a bad idea. The problem remains, as we’ve noted countless times, that this isn’t actually fixing the underlying issue. Namely, our repeated failures on consumer protection, our failure to meaningful regulate the unaccountable data broker market, and our corruption-fueled failure to pass even basic privacy legislation for the internet era.

To hear the TikTok hyperbolics tell it, they’re taking meaningful steps to protect consumer privacy and national security:

“The Biden-Harris Administration has invested heavily in defending our nation’s digital infrastructure and curbing foreign adversaries’ access to Americans’ data,” Chris DeRusha, federal chief information security officer, said. “This guidance is part of the Administration’s ongoing commitment to securing our digital infrastructure and protecting the American people’s security and privacy.”

This may surprise some folks, but you’re not actually protecting the American people’s security and privacy by hyperventilating about a single app.

Yes, TikTok plays fast and loose with consumer data. So does nearly every other foreign and domestic app and service on your phone, from apps that track and monetize your every waking movement in granular detail, to apps and services that casually traffic in your mental health specifics. And that’s before you get to the telecom industry, which has pioneered irresponsible collection and monetization of user info. 

All of this data is fed into a massive and intentionally confusing data broker market that regulators have been generally disinterested in seriously policing, lest U.S. companies (gasp) lose money. We don’t want to pass a modern internet privacy law, or be tough on data brokers, app makers, OEMs, or telecoms, because rampant surveillance and data monetization is simply too lucrative

There’s a lot of sound and fury being generated to distract everyone from that fact. 

There are two general problems cited when it comes to TikTok. The first being that the data TikTok collects can be abused by the Chinese government. But here’s the thing: it’s trivially easy for Chinese, Iranian, Russian, or any other government intelligence to buy this same (and more!) data for very little money from the data broker industry we’ve routinely failed to meaningfully regulate.

The other claimed problem is that the Chinese government will use TikTok to fill U.S. kids heads with gibberish and propaganda. But not only is there no evidence that’s actually happening at scale, it’s a rich concern coming from a country so inundated in authoritarian propaganda (across AM Radio, Fox, Sinclair and the Internet) that residents increasingly engage in widespread domestic terrorism. 

The U.S. made a very specific, very clear policy choice decades ago to prioritize wealth accumulation over consumer privacy, national security, and market health. The same policymakers freaking out about TikTok created the very regulatory environment TikTok exploits. And they don’t want to actually fix it because they don’t want to lose money (or have to do things like obtain pesky warrants). 

So what we get instead is a big, dumb, performance.

But the problem isn’t exclusively TikTok. The problem is greed, corruption, and our multi-decade failures on consumer protection, privacy legislation, and corporate accountability. All protected by an increasingly lopsided court system specifically being cultivated to erode this sagging accountability even further.

Banning TikTok is like running into a burning house, dumping a cupful of water on a burning couch, then standing idly in the swirling smoke with a dumb look on your face insisting you’ve fixed the problem and that all worried house residents can go back to sleep.

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