Monday, May 20, 2024

Yes, TikTok sucks. But the rules for tech giants must be better than ‘it’s only bad if China does it’ | Samantha Floreani

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What year is it? All this talk of a TikTok ban makes it feel like 2020 again.

But this time it might eventuate. Last week the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would require TikTok’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, to sell to a US company or face a national “ban”. Time will tell if it will pass the Senate, but this is the closest the US has come to a national ban since Donald Trump floated the idea four years ago.

More broadly than TikTok, the bill would allow the US president to designate non-US social media apps as national security threats, forcing them to ensure they have no ties to a “US adversary” within six months. That’s a pretty incredible precedent to set. In addition to constitutional concerns about free speech, it flies in the face of notions of a free and open web, instead exacerbating US techno-imperialism.

On its face the prospect of a ban appears to be a result of a steady thrum of discontent and frankly, moral panic, about TikTok. (It’s important to remember that not all of these concerns are organic – in 2022 Meta paid for an astroturf campaign to sow distrust and turn sentiment against its rival.)

And, to be fair, TikTok sucks for lots of reasons: it’s a privacy nightmare; its recommender system takes users down harmful content rabbit holes and can facilitate the “filter bubble” effect; it’s full of influencers and scammers and misinformation; it has a track record of bad content moderation decisions. But show me any major social media platform that doesn’t share that rap sheet.

But it’s not really about these issues, it’s about protecting US global technological hegemony. This is happening within the context of China’s growing tech industry, and tensions that some are calling a new cold war. This includes a so-called “race for AI supremacy” between China and the US (a race to the bottom, but I digress) and battles over microchip production and access to cloud computing services.

This isn’t just an “over there” problem. Over the years Australian politicians and commentators have eagerly jumped onboard the TikTok bandwagon.

In 2020 the late Liberal senator Jim Molan called TikTok a “data collection service disguised as social media”. This week the journalist Alan Kohler said: “TikTok is a foreign influence operation, not a business.” In 2020 the Liberal MP Andrew Hastie said TikTok sharing information with the Chinese government posed a national security threat. This time it’s the Liberal MP James Paterson. Then, as now, it was always about geopolitics rather than data ethics.

While it is true that the Chinese government can compel businesses to share information, we should keep in mind that Australia also has legislation designed to sidestep encryption and enable police and security agencies to compel companies to retain data and share information with them. Given the Snowden revelations revealing the connection between the National Security Agency and tech companies, the US is in no position to point the finger on this either.

If the Chinese government wants to gain access to data about foreign citizens, there are many ways it could do it. For instance it could simply buy it from data brokers – as the US government does – without the risk of compromising one of its own tech giants. Alternatively it could do what Australian government bodies do: use third-party tools to spy on Australians, like how the Australian Signals Directorate uses a tool called ShadowDragon to monitor social media platforms, or how home affairs pays to access tools that collect data across social media platforms and other apps.

The thing is, state and corporate digital surveillance are functionally intertwined. Social media companies regularly provide data to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. It’s one of the key reasons that companies like Signal are so steadfast on not collecting or holding people’s data in the first place: it makes it impossible to be forced to hand it over.

This entire system of digital capitalism and public-private collaboration on surveillance should be called into question. Our analysis of technopolitics must be more sophisticated than: it’s only bad if China does it.

If US lawmakers genuinely cared about protecting their citizens’ data, they would develop robust federal privacy law, pass data transparency rules, crack down on the data broker and adtech industries, defend encryption and enforce no-tracking across apps. And why not? Well, doing that wouldn’t serve the US government and domestic tech industry interests.

This is not to deny genuine concerns about the Chinese government, but such blinkered focus on TikTok as the bad guy of the internet derails the more pressing task of meaningfully unpicking underlying surveillance capitalism business models. Four years on and all this debate about banning TikTok has done is drain oxygen away from harder discussions about how to build a vision for the future of social technology that isn’t dictated by a handful of guys in Silicon Valley and Washington playing geopolitical power games.

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