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TikTok is your worst enemy| GuyWhoKnowsThings


I was really rooting for TikTok.

In 2020, when the Trump administration first attempted to force TikTok's Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the app or risk being shut down, I argued that banning TikTok in the United States would do more harm than good.

Because? Partly because TikTok seemed like a convenient scapegoat for the problems (invasive data collection, opaque content policies, addictive recommendation algorithms) that plagued all the big social media apps, and partly because I never bought the argument that the app was a Chinese spy tool hidden in plain sight.

I'm still skeptical of that argument. If the Chinese government wanted to spy on Americans through their smartphones, it wouldn't have to use TikTok to do it. You could buy large amounts of information from a data broker, thanks to the United States' non-existent federal data privacy laws.

And I still worry that banning TikTok will be a big gift to American tech giants like Meta and Google, owners of TikTok's biggest competitors (Facebook, Instagram and YouTube), further entrenching the winners in a market that already has too little competence.

But in recent weeks, such as a bipartisan bill that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok. thrown towards the passage In Congress, I've warmed to the idea that banning TikTok or forcing its sale is probably a good idea.

I have come to this position reluctantly. I still consider much of the anti-TikTok argument to be based on vague claims of theoretical harms. And I am understanding with arguments Organizations like the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation claimed that banning TikTok would stifle the constitutionally protected speech of American citizens and could set a precedent that authoritarian governments around the world could cite to justify censoring online speech they don't like.

But TikTok has also made a series of unforced errors that have hurt its cause. And the company's clumsy response to the latest congressional bill (which includes encouraging users to flood the offices of their representatives with angry calls, may have inadvertently proven critics right, showing that TikTok is interested and capable of using its muscle to influence American politics whenever it wants.

Alex Haurek, a TikTok spokesperson, defended the company's response, saying that “Americans have a constitutional right to ask the government to redress their grievances, and that includes TikTok users asking their members of Congress to vote against a bill that would trample on their constitutional right to free speech and, in many cases, their livelihoods.”

TikTok has had four years to correct its behavior since Trump led an attempt to force a sale. He could have spent that time becoming radically transparent, proving that he had nothing to hide and that his relationship with ByteDance was as distant and independent as he claimed. The company's leaders might have recognized (and sincerely struggled with) the tension inherent in being a Chinese-owned app that hosts political speech in the United States and other democratic nations, although some of that speech will inevitably veer in directions that the Chinese government doesn't like it.

Instead, TikTok talked about transparency as it embarked on the Texas Project, a lame project aimed at calming fears about Chinese espionage by moving the data of American TikTok users to data servers owned by the American company Oracle. Last year, he invited journalists to tour a new complex he called the Transparency and Accountability Center in Los Angeles, which some attendees described like a neon-lit theme park filled with defensive corporate messages.

Haurek, the TikTok spokesperson, said the company's transparency efforts, which include allowing external audits of the app's source code, were “unprecedented” and “far ahead of any similar company.”

Mainly, TikTok tried to keep its head down, while privately suggesting that anyone who dared to question the company's ties to the Chinese government was engaging in paranoid and perhaps racist scaremongering.

In fact, there have been times when TikTok critics have gone overboard, such as the aggressive interrogation that TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced during a congressional hearing last month over whether he had ties to the Chinese Communist Party. (Mr Chew is Singaporean.)

But the company also accused bona fide skeptics of xenophobia who simply wanted to know how an app owned by a Chinese tech conglomerate could be free of Chinese influence, given Beijing's history of meddling with its tech companies. (I'll never forget the moment, a few years ago, when a TikTok executive suggested I was a bigot for raising questions about whether Mr. Chew—who, more importantly, was also serving as ByteDance's CFO at the time , he felt pressured to comply with Chinese censorship laws.)

The company also expanded its lobbying operations in Washington and resisted transparency regarding its own operations.

In 2022, for example, ByteDance employees were caught watching American journalists reporting on TikTok collected data from reporters' TikTok apps in an attempt to identify who was leaking internal conversations and documents to them. Several ByteDance employees were fired after the incident came to light, with the company claiming it was a “misguided” effort, but for me, the idea that this was an unauthorized operation carried out by a few workers dishonest never passed the smell test.

My colleagues Sapna Maheshwari and Ryan Mac reported last year that TikTok employees shared data from American users on a messaging system, known as Lark, that was also used by Chinese ByteDance employees, despite executives' claims that TikTok did not share that data.

And this year, after researchers used a TikTok data tool to gather information about popular videos related to topics that are repressed within China and concluded that videos about several of those topics, such as China's Uyghur population and protests in Hong Kong, were unusually underrepresented on TikTok compared to other social networks — TikTok silently restricted the tool instead of dispelling criticism.

None of these things, alone, would justify banning TikTok. And it is true that American technology companies engage in similar practices from time to time.

But, fair or not, we have always held higher standards to foreign-owned companies. This is especially true for media companies, whose political and cultural clout make them tempting targets for potential meddlers. (Rupert Murdoch, for example, was required to become a US citizen before purchasing Fox News, due to laws at the time prohibiting foreigners from purchasing American television stations).

TikTok is more powerful than any streaming network, thanks to its enormous size (170 million Americans use it) and the rigidity of its algorithms. And he has shown, with his response to Congress' actions this week, that he is willing to do whatever he can to get what he wants.

Will TikTok really be banned? Hard to say. The Senate must still pass the fire sale bill and President Biden must sign it. Then he will have to survive court challenges. ByteDance, which considers the sale of TikTok as an absolute last resort, is already signaling that it is going to mount a full-blown legal battle to prevent it. And, of course, a ban could be overturned if Donald J. Trump – who has flip-flop on TikTokand now he says that he does not support forcing the application to be sold, he is elected in November.

Watching TikTok fight for its life over the past few weeks, using some of the same obfuscation and misdirection techniques that have worried critics for years, has been deeply depressing. Like many Americans, I use TikTok every day and wanted to defend my favorite time-wasting app from a threat to its existence.

But a company under suspicion has to be held to a higher standard, and TikTok has so far failed to convince critics that it has sufficiently decoupled from its Chinese owner.

If it manages to escape a fire sale, or if the courts block the bill, the company should consider itself lucky and get to work to put more real and verifiable distance between itself and ByteDance, to make its claims to independence more visible. credible.

And if TikTok is forced to sell, it will only have its own mistakes to blame.


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