Banning TikTok Won’t Make the Data Safe

Technology Policy Brief #81 | By: Mindy Spatt | March 24, 2023

Header photo taken from: axios.com/Avishek Das/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Policy Summary

TikTok is under attack from all sides. The Biden Administration is threatening to ban the app altogether, the Justice department is investigating it, advocates say it is dangerous to children, a school district is suing, and governments in the US and the UK won’t allow their workers to use it.

Biden ban TikTok

Photo taken from: 9to5mac.com

Policy Analysis

The alarm bells coming from Washington are due to security concerns over the access Chinese-owned TikTok has to American’s data. The company could avoid the threatened ban if it sells a substantial stake to an American company. It is unclear how a ban would work; although several states and the governments of the US and the UK have banned their employees from using TikTok on state issued phones the country-wide ban would likely be far more difficult to implement. As would a sale. An article in the NY Times on March 17 opined that few American companies are likely to be interested. That same day, CBS news reported that the Justice Department is investigating ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, for possible spying on U.S. citizens. 

Even if TikTok could find a buyer, forcing a sale would hardly protect America’s data, which is widely available for purchase. According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC.org), the information collected and sold by data brokers includes our income, political preferences, children, purchases, health, online activities, and, thanks to smart phones, our location.  Sale of this information is not restricted to the US, or even companies based in the US.  

Data on the military is also available for a price.  In an article entitled “Data Brokers Are a Threat to National Security”, Captain Steven J. Arango, of the U.S. Marine Corps writes that “China, Russia, and Iran can go directly to data brokers to purchase information about service members and veterans or, if that fails, they can just steal it.”  He notes the ubiquity of hacking, including a Chines hack of Equifax that revealed sensitive information on an estimated half of all Americans.  

“Data’, he says, “allows these countries to track service members’ movements, impersonate personnel online or in email, and identify personnel working on specific tasks within the military.”  So the security dangers Tik Tok presents may be no worse than other platforms.  But advocates for children and adolescents are also seeking major changes at Tik Tok and other platforms which they say are necessary to alleviate the dangers posed by algorithims and viral challenges that can cause injury, illness and in some cases death.  

According to Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay For Kids, “TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube’s profit-seeking algorithms expose millions of children and teens to risky content that they are encouraged to imitate,” One example he cited was the case of a 15 year-old boy who died after attempting the so-called “Choking Challenge”  Fairplay is part of a coalition of children’s advocacy groups urging Congress to pass the Kids Online Safety Act (S. 3663). The bill, authored  by Senators Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn, passed the Senate Commerce Committee easily, but has not yet been scheduled for a floor vote.

It includes requirements that platforms allow minors to disable addictive features, protect their information and opt out of algorithmic recommendations, and requires mitigation of the “promotion of self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and unlawful products for minors.”  Both it and a California law that demands changes to online platforms serving children are virulently opposed by the tech industry.

Governor Gavin Newsome signed California’s Appropriate Design Code Act, in 2022. It restricts data collection by internet companies that serve children and requires that they design their platforms with children’s “well-being” in mind.  The tech industry is challenging that measure in court, and  fighting efforts to replicate it currently taking place in Maryland, Minnesota and elsewhere.  

“This is an absolute virus spreading across the country… to create new rules on how Americans and their families engage online,” whined Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice, a big tech lobbying organization, in an interview. NetChoice’s members include Google, Meta, Twitter, and yes, Chinese-owned TikTok as well.

Creators protest potential TikTok ban in D.C.

Photo taken from: nbcnews.com

The lobbying blitz will be hard for advocates to counter, according to Nicole Gill of Accountable Tech. Accountable Tech is part of a coalition backing the age-appropriate design bills similar to California’s  that also includes Parents Together and Design It For Us  “It’s certainly not a fair fight,” said Gill, noting the industry’s ample resources.

Advocates insist the law is needed to better protect children from harmful online content and to block features like Autoplay that encourage youth to spend hours online. They also want default privacy settings configured to the highest possible level and restrictions on the collection and sale of children’s data.

The San Mateo County Board of Education isn’t waiting for the California law to go into effect in 2024.  It is suing some of the biggest names in social media,  claiming TikTok, Snapchat, YouTube and others create a “destructive environment for children,”  leaving parents and educators to deal with a growing crisis in childhood mental health. 

With all of this TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew will be on the hot seat during his scheduled testimony to the House of representatives on March 23. The committee has said the hearing will focus on TikTok’s “consumer privacy and data security practices, how the platform affects children, and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.”

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Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

Dared by the Algorithm: Dangerous Challenges Are Just a Click Away

Dared by the Algorithm: Dangerous Challenges Are Just a Click Away

California’s New Child Privacy Law Could Become National Standard

 

California’s New Child Privacy Law Could Become National Standard

Data Brokers are a Threat to National Security

 

Data Brokers are a Threat to National Security

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