If a world historical crisis being mismanaged by a far-right leader weren’t bad enough, it now seems the government is coming for your beloved social media apps.
Trump’s latest gambit to distract from his monumental mismanagement of the pandemic response is a threat to ban the social media app TikTok, a video sharing service with 800 million users across several continents, many of them teens and young adults.
But Trump’s threat is more than the desperate flailing of a leader whose reelection chances are rapidly sinking. It marks the culmination of a rising, bipartisan drumbeat of hostility toward the app, both in the United States and globally.
There are three principal objections to TikTok: the vast amounts of its users’ personal data that it vacuums up, its potential reach into the homes and minds of the unsuspecting public, and the threat of censorship. All are intimately connected to TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance, a Chinese company headquartered in Beijing. They are therefore also tangled up in the growing swell of anti-Chinese sentiment here and abroad.
It’s this that led Congress to ban federal employees from carrying the app on their phones, leading to headlines asking if it’s “spying on you for China” and posing “a risk to US national security,” and to secretary of state Mike Pompeo warning that it puts “your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”
India banned the app in June, charging that “its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defense of India … requires emergency measures” (though, significantly, TikTok was one of a suite of Chinese mobile apps banned by India, a ban that only came following a June border skirmish between the two countries).
In Australia, poised to launch a probe into the app, the MP who chairs the country’s Committee on Intelligence and Security suggested its potential data collection could be used to manipulate the country’s politics in the years and decades ahead.
“They’re our future leaders,” he said about the app’s largely teenage user base. “They’re our future political, economic, cultural and military leaders and we need to protect their information long term.”
In US political discourse, where the largely media-manufactured idea that Russian “bots” and “fake news” swung the election is unassailable, some fear China will use the data it hoovers up to interfere in elections — “a Chinese Cambridge Analytica data bomb waiting to explode,” in other words.
Others warn that TikTok’s willingness to censor at Beijing’s request poses a threat to free speech beyond China’s borders, given the global nature of the app. “In this case, nobody in the world would be able to access the content on TikTok once removed,” writes Lawfare’s Justin Sherman. “The takedowns would be global.”
All of this is made worse by the Chinese government’s increasingly repressive, borderline genocidal nature, making its control of information and private data all the more perilous. It’s these worries that have united everyone from the hard right, to China hawks more generally, to even some progressives.
And none of this is unreasonable. We should be worried about private companies and governments potentially collecting data on millions of unsuspecting people and censoring content they don’t like. But those based in China represent just a sliver of that threat.
China Is a Latecomer
The fact is that everything people fear TikTok and the Chinese government are doing or someday will do is already being done by a host of other tech giants and governments. The only difference is, they happen to be situated in Western countries.
The mass collection of personal data? As commentators note (even those critical of the app), Tik Tok doesn’t appear to do anything “over and above the prying data grabs typical of all social media platforms.” Several experts told Wired the app’s data collection is in the same ballpark as other apps. Even ProtonMail, which does argue TikTok’s collection is more extreme than other social media platforms, suggests others are little better. “How much user data does TikTok collect?” it asks. “As with just about every social media platform, the answer is: ‘a lot.’”
This is nothing to be sanguine about. From your web browser, to your email, to your various social media accounts, to your phone, to its most innocuous-seeming apps, your lives are being constantly tracked, documented, and packaged, often for advertisers and corporations. If you’ve shelled out for any of the newfangled “smart” products, you’re having data about your most intimate life harvested.
It was only two years ago we found out Facebook allowed, through its lax data protections, one single app to harvest the data of 87 million users, including their work history and political vies, even though only 270,000 downloaded the app.
This is the same company that once secretly experimented with its users’ moods and emotions. Worse, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, whatever steps we take to protect our privacy, we likely can’t stop companies from collecting our private information.
Collaborating with government? That too is hardly a Chinese innovation. Despite some significant resistance to the US government’s snooping, the big US-based tech companies have become what one cybersecurity expert dubs “surveillance intermediaries,” continuing to hand over data at the request of the US government.
Thanks to the Snowden leaks, we know the NSA hoards data — including photos, videos, emails, and more — from a who’s who of Silicon Valley since 2007, swimming in so much of our personal information that even its analysts complain it makes their jobs harder.
Despite initially eliciting fiery outrage, that program—whose first target was a pro-democracy critic of Fiji’s authoritarian leader — has been reauthorized with little objection. And even without the cooperation of tech firms, the UK government taps undersea cables to scoop up phone calls and internet activity, which it then shares with its Five Eyes partners, which of course includes the United States.
The blurred line between government and business that TikTok’s critics point to likewise isn’t unique to China. Silicon Valley has a close relationship with one of the United States’s two ruling parties, hiring alumni of the last Democratic administration while funneling many millions of dollars to the party’s candidates.
In fact, this election is seeing a handful of tech billionaires throwing millions of dollars at creating data infrastructure and partisan “news” sites aimed at electing the party’s 2020 presidential nominee.
Lastly, while a reluctance to censor may have once distinguished Western tech firms from their Chinese counterparts, the panic that followed the elections that brought us Brexit and Trump has all but neutralized that distinction.
Under increasing pressure from the liberal end of the Washington spectrum, tech companies have become increasingly censorious, working with outfits like the NATO-aligned and corporate-funded Atlantic Council and even the Israeli government to purge content those bodies deem inappropriate.
In one particularly egregious example, Facebook, egged on by CNN, suspended a left-wing news outlet from its platform for two crimes: not disclosing its funding from Russian state media, something Facebook had never required until then; and, even more menacingly, for being critical of Western government policies, or as the report put it, being “generally critical of US foreign policy and the mainstream American media,” which CNN suggested made it tantamount to Kremlin propaganda.
Whether you’re an American citizen or a foreigner worried about how shadowy governments and unaccountable corporations might misuse the data of leaders current and future, it’s not clear why you should only be worried about those in China.
Indeed, given the Five Eyes member countries’ extensive history of meddling in other countries — and given the massive amounts of money US tech firms spend to influence their own country’s politics — this should be a worry at least as pressing as China, especially given the larger number of US-based social media platforms that we use without a care in the world on a daily basis.
TikTok’s critics might point to the increasingly scary behavior of China’s government as to why Chinese control of information is particularly alarming. They’re right about the behavior, but they curiously ignore the fact that the United States itself is currently governed by a far-right demagogue with his own concentration camps and authoritarian repression, and that the party behind him, which aligns entirely with his politics, reliably cycles into power at least once every eight years.
This is what the era of mass surveillance and nationalist neoliberalism has produced. Seven years ago, the vast scope of public-private spying was a global scandal. Now, we’ve so normalized mass surveillance that the only time we’re allowed to worry about it is if the people doing it live in whatever the world’s current “evil empire” happens to be.
Oppose It All
The answer isn’t to dismiss the potential menace of China’s surveillance programs, or to cheerlead for a rival set of tech oligarchs who simply happen to live in California and speak English.
We should broaden the concerns and criticisms of TikTok and its relationship to China to tech firms more generally, and push for an across-the-board guarantee of online privacy and free speech for all of the world’s people, whether they’re more worried about being tracked and manipulated by people in the United States or China.
What might that look like? Perhaps it would involve negotiating a set of rules for surveillance and data collection that all governments and the tech firms associated with them would have to play by.
The trouble is, just as US opposition has hindered everything from a cluster bomb ban and the International Criminal Court to a multilateral agreement on space militarization, it would be difficult to get the US government to agree to so much as curtail a set of tools it pioneered and enjoys significant geopolitical advantage from. And that’s before we got to the vehement opposition that would come from tech firms themselves.
Still, as ambitious as it is, even simply shifting the conversation to such an idea would, at the very least, be more productive than the current solutions. As is, we’re left with a rival video sharing platform, Triller, trying to capitalize on TikTok’s troubles by promising “a form of patriotic capitalism,” and Microsoft, now looking to buy the app, pledging to keep all its data in the United States — ripe and ready for the NSA and other Western government agencies to then ladle up, patriotically of course.
Silicon Valley and the NSA would love us to think that it’s who does the spying, not the spying itself, that’s the real problem. We shouldn’t let them get away with the impression a mere seven years is all it takes for us to lose our sense of outrage.