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19 March 2024

Banning TikTok won’t save us

The problem with Big Tech runs much, much deeper.

By Sarah Manavis

What would social media be like without Americans? Quieter, less shrill; admittedly a lot less fun. But would Americans be better off if they were forced to stay offline? Would they be spared the privacy invasions of Big Tech companies, who pick and choose which ideas they’re exposed to, or subject them to harassment and abuse?

It’s a hypothesis that may soon be tested in real terms. Last week, the US House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill which would force TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the platform to a non-Chinese company or else face an effective ban across the entire country. It comes at a moment where American politicians, from individual states to the federal government, are increasing scrutiny around TikTok both in terms of its social impact on users, as well as (and particularly in the case of this bill) its status as a Chinese company. While the bill needs to pass a vote in the Senate to become law, if it did it would give ByteDance six months to find a buyer deemed suitable by the US government. Failing that, it would become unlawful for TikTok to be available on app stores nationwide, with other potential penalties put in place such as fines for companies who work with TikTok or host the site.

The bill has been a political mess. Support does not cleanly fall along party lines, with a mix of Democrats and Republicans voting for and against it. It’s slightly tainted by the fact that Donald Trump attempted to ban TikTok in 2020 via executive order, which failed to hold up in court. The day of the House vote, TikTokers protested outside the Capitol building, saying the ban would end their careers or hurt their businesses (ByteDance itself encouraged American users to contact their representatives asking them to oppose the bill). The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have come out against the idea, saying it could stifle free speech and set a bad precedent for authoritarian censorship in the future. The motivations behind the bill have been accused of xenophobia and bigotry – an accusation which has been levelled at TikTok critics for years now.

The concern about the impact of TikTok – and social media more broadly – on the fabric of society and especially young people’s lives is, if anything, less vehement than it should be. Arguments that the Chinese government has potential influence on TikTok are valid too: under Chinese law, ByteDance would have to hand over personal data about their American users if asked to by the Chinese government. ByteDance has had the four years since Trump’s executive order to assuage concerns, but they have only snowballed, buoyed by the actions of ByteDance staff (just over a year ago, ByteDance employees were caught surveilling two American journalists who reported heavily on TikTok).

And yet this bill is not evidence of a new, comprehensive strategy going after a uniquely dangerous platform. It is merely a political scapegoat and a convenient excuse to avoid making the challenging, substantial changes which would address our present problems around social media safety and data privacy. Yes, the Chinese government could obtain American user data via ByteDance – but what is even more worrying is that there are a litany of easier ways to gather a far greater amount of information on Americans perfectly legally, such as through data brokers which collect private and professional data. It’s right to think that TikTok’s algorithm can wield influence on American culture and political thinking, but this is true of every major platform, none of which have content policies or algorithm transparency that are meaningfully less opaque than TikTok’s.

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A TikTok ban – or a sale to a non-Chinese owner – might plug a few holes in US privacy laws. But this bill is being treated as a major solution to a pervasive, global data protection problem. This feigned check on Big Tech’s power implies that a non-Chinese owner would magically result in a healthier online environment for social media users. The reality is that these issues plague every major platform in the world, making a ban not just minimally effective in protecting American users, but also a win for the other social media companies – Facebook, Instagram, or even Twitter (now “X”) – who deserve equal scrutiny, but will escape it if this is wrongly labelled a “TikTok problem”. The real answer to American privacy issues is a lot more boring: dramatically increasing US data privacy protections which are, at present, effectively non-existent.

Social media today can be a grim place, where manipulation is rife, algorithms are murky and private data is constantly harvested. Solving these issues will require complicated, exhaustive air-tight legislation, that would take years of arduous work. But this is a task which has few electoral incentives for politicians who could instead paint themselves as heroes for going after a single, unpopular boogie man. We should examine TikTok closely, and we should be cautiously heartened to see politicians showing a genuine commitment to making the internet safer. But we can’t be fooled into thinking that this is a TikTok problem. By banning TikTok, these problems will simply relocate to fester elsewhere.

[See also: Demonising rural voters invites defeat for the Democrats]

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