Banning TikTok Solves Nothing

On the 23rd of March 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Chew testified before the U.S. Congress as the country intensifies its efforts to ban TikTok.

TikTok has been the most downloaded app in the United States since 2021. It currently has around 150 million American users. If this new law is passed, all of those people, including tens of millions who have built communities and livelihoods on the app, will no longer have access to it. In an instant, everything they’ve built on the app… Gone.

I’ll be the first to say that TikTok is not the best app out there. We’ve made several videos about how dangerous it is, especially for young people. But the truth is that banning TikTok doesn’t solve the problems we and many others have highlighted concerning the app. What’s worse is that in an effort to ban just one app, the U.S. Congress might be opening a can of worms. One with far more sinister consequences.

The case for banning TikTok is presented as a national security issue. TikTok captures tons of user data on Americans. But ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is a Chinese company, headquartered in Beijing. And like any Chinese company, it’s subject to a national security law that requires it to hand over user data anytime the Chinese government requests it.

Simply put, if the Chinese Government wants your TikTok user data, they can collect it and there’s nothing TikTok or ByteDance can do about it. This includes data such as your email address, what websites you visit and even your location within a small radius.

For most of us, this isn’t too much of an issue. But the more popular TikTok gets, the more people like politicians, journalists, and activists are incentivized to use the platform to get to their audience. And those people are at risk of getting doxxed, or even worse, attacked.

TikTok’s CEO insists that the platform has not spied on Americans on behalf of the Chinese government. But that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future, in fact, for all we know he might not have been telling the truth. It wouldn’t be the first time a CEO used slippery language to avoid admitting a hard truth.

But would banning TikTok really prevent American user data from getting into the hands of the Chinese government? And why should we care anyway?

The truth is Chinese intelligence has been engaging in significant acts of espionage for the last decade. Notably, they’ve stolen personal records from Anthem health insurance, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and Marriott hotels, as well as credit information from Equifax. The Chinese government has an enormous amount of American personal data already. The data is useful in identifying U.S. intelligence officers and any potential weaknesses they may have.
And they did all this without TikTok, so it’s easy to see why U.S. authorities would be on alert over how much data this app is collecting and how easy it would be for the Chinese Communist Party to access, but that doesn’t mean there is a legitimate case for the ban. TikTok is not unique in collecting user data. Every single social media company does it, with the end goal of serving you better ads. This is how these platforms make money. They determine your interests from the data they collect from you and serve you ads based on those interests. The more data they have, the more advertising companies are willing to pay them because it means they can achieve more precise targeting for their ads.

That data doesn’t just stay inside the social media platform, it travels with you across the web via something called a pixel or a cookie, depending on who is tracking you. Then, the data is sold to data brokers, who in turn, sell it to the highest bidder. Sometimes, these data brokers get hacked and your information is leaked.

Even without data brokers leaking your information, anyone can use open-source intelligence tools to correlate your activity across your social media accounts and use that to find out most things about you. They can analyze images to find your phone number, your email address, even your geolocation.

Just by following your social media feed, they can find out a lot of sensitive information, and I’m not just talking about your unhinged cousin who openly boasts about a fight they got into at their local pub.

When you post an image, metadata often gives away geolocation and other details. Without violating data privacy, someone could build an extensive profile on you from what you publicly share.

In reality, any sensitive data TikTok collects can also be easily found on the other social media platforms. China doesn’t need TikTok to harvest the sensitive data of anyone. We’ve already been giving that information to companies like Meta and Google for a long time.

Some countries, including Canada and the United States, have recently banned government workers from using TikTok. This makes sense, given what foreign agents could learn about persons of interest. But it also means these employees should probably give up all social media to avoid threatening national security.

But there’s another threat we haven’t discussed yet beyond cybersecurity. Could China be influencing American TikTok users through the insidious use of an algorithm?

Are they secretly manipulating what you see behind the curtains? Well, they are. But again, so is every other platform. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, all of these companies use algorithms to control what you see. But not because they are trying to make you dumber or reduce your attention span. It’s because they’re trying to keep you on their platform for as long as possible.

To do this, TikTok promotes short, quirky videos, and minimize political discourse. Because most people would rather watch a video of a cute panda falling than read the news about the horrific things going on in the world.

But in defense of TikTok, if you search for these videos, you will find them. They might not be on the For You Page, but they’re not hidden or censored like on most other platforms. There really aren’t any signs of unique censorship by Beijing. It appears as if the app was simply designed to meet the needs of the marketplace, rather than as a ploy to further the political interests of the Chinese government.

So if TikTok is not a unique threat to Americans, then wouldn’t banning an app that’s used by over 150 million Americans be a huge overreach?

Even worse, to make the TikTok ban possible, the United States Congress is pushing something called the Restrict Act that could set a very dangerous precedent for the country, and possibly, the entire world.

The Restrict Act proposes to “prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries,” including Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Venezuela and China.

The bill is intended to restrict security threats posed by information and communications technology. But the heavy-handed nature of this legislation could throw a wrench in our idea of a free internet.

The act would have enormous implications for how we navigate the internet. It would potentially make VPNs illegal and would essentially crack down on a free and open digital world. The act could control what you have access to and what apps you can use on your device.

Doesn’t that remind you of another country? Perhaps the very one that is being condemned right now?

In light of all this, the move to ban TikTok seems less like a legitimate action to bolster national security and more a way of preventing the growth of foreign adversaries on the world stage. Or maybe it’s just a way to keep American social media companies happy?

Meta is losing ground to TikTok. So are Snapchat, YouTube, and Twitter. In response, Facebook released Reels, YouTube made Shorts, and Twitter created it’s own For You Page. But TikTok is still leading the race for short form content.

It’s clear to see that TikTok is giving these companies a run for their money. And maybe it’s with their tail between their legs that they’re hoping for the government to come to their aid to save them from the big bad TikTok algorithm.

Is it any surprise that the likes of Meta are paying lobbying groups to push an anti-TikTok agenda? They’re citing national security threats while their own platforms have been found guilty of posing even greater threats like spreading electoral misinformation.

All the popular social media platforms are guilty of the same thing they’re accusing TikTok of. They all lack any meaningful respect for your data privacy.

Data privacy laws do exist and there are more coming. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, is intended to protect the data privacy of those living within the Union. It was the first major piece of data privacy legislation to be passed.

Similarly, the CCPA, The California Consumer Privacy Act in California is intended to protect data privacy for Californians.

Tech companies have responded by creating internet browsers that incorporate major steps to accommodate privacy laws. Almost all the major web browsers have eliminated data tracking cookies that store your personal data - data that can be easily accessed and sold. The last major holdout is Google Chrome which is still trying to develop a privacy-friendly replacement for the tracking cookie.

But have social media platforms made any progress in respecting your privacy? Do they even abide by these privacy laws?

Rather than limiting their data sharing, social media companies skirt these laws by getting consent from the user to share their data. You’re presented with a long page of terms and conditions that you have to agree to before you can access the service. But how many of us actually read those things? And even if we did, would we even understand them? These companies know this, and they hide under the guise of consent to continue to pay zero attention to data privacy concerns. Even when it’s not genuine informed consent.

GDPR requires that social media platforms obtain further consent for data sharing, but in January of 2023, Meta was found to be illegally forcing users to accept personalized ads. They just don’t seem to respect data privacy.

There are ways to anonymize data for advertising purposes that don’t require sharing sensitive information. Yes, people are going to share personal information on social media. In many ways, that’s why we use it. But we’re only choosing the share the information we personally upload. We do not choose to hand over our email address, personal information or location to third parties we might not even know.

Banning TikTok is not the answer. Instead, all social media apps should be required by law to have a higher standard of data privacy. And the “Restrict Act” needs to be a lot clearer on what it can and cannot do, We don't need to destroy the free internet just so we can kick one app out of the App Store.

With that said, TikTok does have some unique and disturbing effects on young people that are definitely worth talking about, click on the video on your screen right now to find out what they are and how we can fix them without banning the app outright.