What are the biggest problems that the people of Rapid City, South Dakota, have to face? I’d argue that its citizens should be most concerned that the sole reason the state seems to exist is to provide a haven for oligarchs and tax cheats. But not everyone agrees—and in what is becoming a pitched mayoral race in the state’s second-most-populous city, it’s a matter of hot debate. If you listen to city Councilwoman Laura Armstrong, who has already announced her intention to run, she’ll tell you the biggest issues are crime and meth. But a potential rival, her council colleague Jason Salamun, has identified a different villain: TikTok.
Over the past few months, TikTok—the social media platform that Gen Z has taken to in droves and which their aunts don’t quite understand—has earned the opprobrium of lawmakers near and far. The Wall Street Journal, which reported on these Rapid City goings-on, asserts that concerns over the platform have gone “from Washington to Main Street”—and with a bipartisan sheen to boot. It’s hardly the first time a tech company has drawn the critical eye of policymakers. But what critics of TikTok claim is a matter of national security looks, upon closer inspection, to be a familiar concern about privacy that could just as easily be levied—and should be levied—against a whole array of U.S.-based tech companies.
The political war on TikTok has been brewing for some time, but it ramped up in mid-December when bipartisan legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate that would ban TikTok outright in the United States. That this measure suddenly arrived on the scene with such broad approval was, to me, a red flag. Bipartisan legislation typically falls into three categories: the naming of post offices, the funding of unwinnable wars, and stupid pieces of stunt legislation. My suspicions were confirmed when I saw the name of the bill: Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act, or ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act. As my colleague Matt Ford has written, acronym bills are typically the work of the unhinged or the unserious.
Nevertheless, it does seem as though this bipartisan and bicameral desire to limit TikTok’s ability to, say, briefly cement Louis Theroux’s status as a hip-hop icon, was born of bona fide real-world concerns. As NBC News’s Rebecca Shabad reported, lawmakers took the step after receiving “warnings from the FBI director and cybersecurity experts who have said China could use the social media platform for spying”; Buzzfeed reported in June that China-based employees of TikTok’s parent company had accessed the nonpublic data of U.S. users despite assurances to the contrary. The ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act, put forth in the Senate by Marco Rubio, sought “to protect Americans from foreign adversaries who might use certain social media to surveil Americans, learn sensitive data about them, and spread influence campaigns or propaganda.”
But TechDirt’s Karl Bode took a dim view of Rubio’s proposal, and with good reason. “For several years,” he wrote, “we’ve noted how most of the calls to ban TikTok are bad faith bullshit made by a rotating crop of characters that not only couldn’t care less about consumer privacy, but are directly responsible for the privacy oversight vacuum TikTok (and everybody else) exploits.” Bode noted the dubious legal underpinnings of the measure but found a larger fault at the core of the proposal: “For decades the GOP (and more than a few Democrats) have worked tirelessly to erode [Federal Trade Commission] privacy enforcement authority and funding, while fighting tooth and nail against absolutely any meaningful privacy legislation for the Internet era.”
This door has been open for tech companies of all stripes to abuse in similar fashion. “If you actually care about national security,” wrote Bode, “holding all companies and data brokers accountable for privacy abuses should be your priority. A basic, helpful, well-written privacy law should be your priority. A working, staffed, properly funded FTC should be your priority.”
We have some idea what a more rigorous regulatory regime looks like. European authorities this week dropped hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fines on Mark Zuckerberg as part of the EU’s larger effort to bring Meta into compliance with the privacy regulations of its member nations. That we don’t have this level of enforcement in America is down to the fact that firms like Meta spend a lot of time and money influencing our lawmakers to retain a status quo in which they have broad latitude to do the very things TikTok stands accused of doing: surveilling Americans, acquiring sensitive data about them, and subjecting them to influence campaigns and propaganda.
What’s likely to happen once all the shouting is over? As Bode notes, a stateside TikTok ban is not going to prevent China’s exploits in the field of data acquisition: “You could ban TikTok immediately and the Chinese government could simply buy this (and more) data from a rotating crop of dodgy data brokers and assorted middlemen.” Meanwhile, the tech industry’s surveillance-capitalism panopticon will continue its work. Lawmakers could take bigger and more effective efforts to secure our privacy, but until then we’ll get a few brief and repetitive seconds of feckless and ineffectual parliamentary song-and-dance from lawmakers across the land. How very TikTokian.