For years, Republican lawmakers have relentlessly pushed for a nationwide TikTok ban, claiming it will help protect U.S. consumer privacy and national security.
But those same lawmakers have a long and deep history of fighting meaningful data privacy legislation, supporting government surveillance on citizens, and during a blind eye to U.S. corporate ties with China.
And instead of attempting to address these problems head-on, they’re pushing for a lazy, ephemeral solution that will allow the next big app to cause the same big problems they’re so frightened about right now.
It’s a fake reform movement that a savvy digital populace shouldn’t allow to blossom.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr have enjoyed ample press headlines and TV appearances over the last year by insisting TikTok presents an imminent and unique threat to the U.S. public.
Those advocating for a broad-based ban claim the hugely popular video app is ripe for abuse by the Chinese government, either through the exploitation of the data collected by the app or through its ability to influence impressionable young Americans.
“China hates us,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) recently proclaimed before announcing a ban of TikTok on all state devices. “They’re manipulating their algorithms to gather information on American citizens to use against us. Here in the state of South Dakota, we’ve taken action.”
Despite repeated but often ambiguous and unevidenced claims that TikTok poses a unique threat to the platform’s 80 million U.S. users, experts suggest there’s little hard evidence the Chinese government has used TikTok to conduct U.S. influence operations at scale, whether through the manipulation of the platform’s algorithms or active involvement in manipulating platform trends.
Employees at TikTok owner ByteDance have been caught playing fast and loose with consumer data, going so far as to access the accounts of several U.S. journalists to track down press leaks. But such violations are increasingly common across Big Tech, telecom, adtech, and other industries that see only fleeting oversight from apathetic U.S. regulators.
Instead, TikTok’s privacy failures have been singled out as part of a growing moral and xenophobic panic in Republican circles, where everything from efforts to improve game console energy efficiency to inclusive candy branding routinely result in manufactured culture war outrage designed to keep party loyalists in a perpetual state of agitation.
Republican governors banned TikTok on government employee devices. Twenty-three publicly-funded colleges in six Republican-leaning states banned the app from their networks, despite such bans being easy for users to avoid by simply accessing the app over cellular data.
But any claim against it, from algorithmic manipulation to data harvesting, are problems the same leaders refuse to address at home. Many have fought tooth and nail against meaningful privacy legislation, or any meaningful oversight for tech executives and telecom companies caught playing fast and loose with consumer data, be they domestic or foreign.
Blackburn and her GOP allies worked tirelessly to kill broadband privacy rules at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would protect consumer data. And the FCC’s Carr, who doesn’t have the authority to regulate TikTok, broadly opposed holding U.S. telecom giants consistently accountable for their widespread collection and abuse of consumer data.
Republican critics of TikTok are fine with widespread privacy abuses and unchecked surveillance—provided U.S. corporations and government agencies are the ones doing it. Most of TikTok’s Republican critics broadly supported legislation like the EARN IT Act, a bill critics say broadly undermines encryption and internet privacy.
When Republican TikTok critics do introduce privacy legislation, the result is highly performative bills that in many instances do more harm than good.
Blackburn’s Kids Online Safety Act was broadly criticized for undermining children’s privacy. The senator’s BROWSER Act faced similar criticism for its attempt to create a simulacrum of real oversight impossible to implement.
None of the bills have passed, which appears irrelevant to Blackburn, who now is harping on a bigger “worry.”
There’s good reason for that. Experts suggest the GOP hysteria over TikTok has proven to be a useful distraction from the fact that the U.S. government has failed to stand up to the tech industry and pass meaningful privacy legislation.
But content moderation and consumer privacy issues—which Republicans ostensibly want to tackle after the sins of 2020—are complicated problems requiring well-considered solutions. In contrast, banning a single app is a superficial and lazy band-aid. Banning TikTok—but doing little to address the conditions that gave rise to the broader exploitation of lax U.S. privacy standards—doesn’t fix the actual problem.
“These bans will have little effect on the overall data privacy landscape—only comprehensive data privacy legislation applying to data collectors across the board will do that,” David Greene, Senior Staff Attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Daily Dot.
App popularity is fickle. TikTok’s continued success isn’t guaranteed and by fixating heavily on a single app’s problems instead of broader privacy reform, there’s absolutely nothing stopping future iterations of TikTok or any number of foreign and domestic apps from abusing consumer privacy.
U.S. consumer phones are routinely filled with a countless array of apps and services that hoover up everything from your daily location and facial recognition data to your daily browsing and shopping habits, then sell that data to a wide variety of often-dodgy and barely regulated data brokers and international governments. The entire U.S. wireless industry was caught collecting and selling granular user location data with few meaningful safeguards. This data was then widely abused by everyone from stalkers to individuals pretending to be law enforcement. In the wake of the assault on abortion rights, data collected on the reproductive choices made by American women were bought and sold on the open market with few safeguards.
The Republican response to these scandals was, with fleeting exceptions, a collective yawn.
America’s lax oversight of consumer privacy and security has created a paradigm where widespread privacy abuse isn’t just common, it’s the accepted norm. TikTok, like countless other tech, adtech, and telecom companies, is less interested in toppling the U.S. government than exploiting this oversight vacuum to dramatically expand its estimated $18 billion in annual ad revenue.
“It’s noteworthy that few of those seeking to ban TikTok because of stated data privacy concerns have taken any steps to address data privacy concerns raised in numerous other contexts, both online and off,” Greene said. “We see too little momentum towards data privacy laws on either the state or federal level, and insufficient enthusiasm to address the issue of governmental access to the user data more broadly.”
Banning TikTok may grab headlines, but it would only be impactful if tied to larger policy reform that actually addresses American privacy.
Republicans aren’t offering that. In fact, even their bolder solutions to TikTok would lash the company just as tight to China, their ostensibly fear.
Both the Biden and Trump administration tried to offload data to Oracle, despite the company having a long history of its own widespread privacy abuses and a history of aiding Chinese law enforcement in conducting repressive surveillance work.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March, as calls for a ban of the app intensify. While politicians will be swift to condemn the app, American internet users would be better served if they looked inward.