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TikTok war in US: a 21st-century game of thrones


The knives are out for TikTok, with leading figures in Congress pushing for a nationwide ban, which China and other critics have branded a witch-hunt that unfairly singles out the ByteDance-owned platform.

Cybernews canvassed a range of opinions to see which side of the divide America’s pundits fall on. None of them seemed to think TikTok blameless, but several did raise concerns that a blanket ban could be a blunt-force instrument unsuited to dealing with the complex problem of data regulation.

Cheyenne Hunt, a lawyer and digital rights activist who recently announced that she is running for Congress, doesn’t disagree that China poses a security threat. What she doesn’t feel comfortable with is the political institution she seeks to join singling out TikTok, while turning a blind eye to the intrusive data policies of its US rivals.

"These companies have been allowed to gobble up their competition and corner of the market in such a way that consumers have almost no meaningful choice. Banning TikTok would only serve to further entrench their monopoly power."

Cheyenne Hunt, digital rights activist and congressional candidate

“The company itself has admitted that high-level employees utilized user data to surveil US-based journalists, which is a real concern,” Hunt told Cybernews. “That being said, data collected from all other social media platforms has also been used by the CCP [Chinese Communist Party], Russia, and other foreign and domestic bad actors. Banning TikTok does not address the underlying policy issue, which is that we have incredibly weak data protection laws in this country.”

With Instagram, owned by Meta, and Snapchat, owned by California-based company Snap, already being tipped by some as potential winners waiting in the wings if TikTok is erased from the American social media landscape, it isn’t surprising that others might see Congress’s aggressive pursuit of the ByteDance-owned app as paving the way for a US Big Tech shoo-in.

“These companies have been allowed to gobble up their competition and corner of the market in such a way that consumers have almost no meaningful choice. Banning TikTok would only serve to further entrench their monopoly power and could stifle innovation, as these companies would no longer have to strive to better their products to compete.”

Who really benefits from a ban?

Other Democrats certainly seem inclined to agree. “Why the hysteria and panic and targeting of TikTok?” Congressman for New York Jamaal Bowman recently asked. “In terms of TikTok’s behavior, it poses about the same risk that companies like Facebook and Instagram and YouTube and Twitter pose.”

Though both may have stopped short of outright saying so, Hunt and Bowman appear to be echoing growing concerns that this latest move by a Republican-led Congress against TikTok is a virtue-signaling one on the surface that is intended to shore up American corporate control of what many have dubbed the oil of the 21st century – the public’s digital data.

“I think people in this country are sick of ‘messaging’ bills and are more interested in legislation that actually fixes the underlying policy problems,” said Hunt. “Our intimate personal data is ripe for collection and abuse across the entire internet, and I believe people of all ages would rather see a policy addressing that issue instead of a whack-a-mole ban on a single app.”

"I think people in this country are sick of 'messaging' bills and are more interested in legislation that actually fixes the underlying policy problems. Our intimate personal data is ripe for collection and abuse across the entire internet."

Hunt

Hunt recently threw her hat into the political arena, but other Americans outside the Washington DC bear-pit have been keeping a beady eye on the collection of US citizens’ data by tech companies all over the world. Jennifer Hinkel and Arka Ray of the Data Economics Company think that the tech moguls owe the public a cut for what they say has up until now amounted to free use of data to tap unshared profits.

“There's a camp of people that think digital data is the exhaust that's produced as a byproduct,” Hinkel told Cybernews recently. “I think that's a perspective that very much benefits the data aggregators of the world, or the people that want to control and hoard and maybe benefit from data they haven't generated.”

Hinkel and Ray make the case that people’s data should not only be controllable by them, in terms of how, when, and if it is used, but that a royalty or interest system needs to be implemented that allows ordinary citizens to charge for theirs to be used by tech firms, whether that be in targeted marketing campaigns or to train AI-based large-language learning models like ChatGPT.

“Let's say that you have an asset in the bank, some type of money,” Ray told Cybernews. “And the bank or whoever else is using that asset. You get interest for that.”

Hinkel added: “If you do work for someone, the outcome of that work is that you're paid for it. You have the right to that money, your compensation.”

Notably, neither Hinkel nor Ray are saying that TikTok isn’t part of the problem – but nor did they name it as its sole cause, or even the worst offender. Rather, it is the US companies that seemed to preoccupy them most – Google and Meta were referenced by name, while ByteDance, though far from exempt from their proposals for equitable data regulations and tech solutions to support them, was not.

Would a ban alienate the youth vote?

I put it to Hunt that zeroing in on ByteDance and TikTok while ignoring US big tech offenders might end up playing to China’s hand – cyber geopolitical analysts like Mandiant have for some time been tracking efforts by state-affiliated actors such as DragonBridge to undermine American faith in democratic institutions with disinformation campaigns using dummy accounts on Twitter.

If a generation of younger US voters who love TikTok feel alienated and silenced by a ban – a view taken by activist group Gen Z For Change, led by Harvard undergraduate Aidan Kohn-Murphy – will this not end up producing the exact same voter disengagement that Congress fears an unchecked TikTok could cause?

"There are many respected constitutional lawyers who raise concerns that banning a single app could violate the First Amendment's protection of free speech."

Hunt

Hunt’s answer to that is somewhat evasive. While she doesn’t appear to agree wholeheartedly with this view, she does voice concerns that a blanket ban on a single app and company could set a legal precedent for undemocratic measures.

“There are many respected constitutional lawyers who raise concerns that banning a single app could violate the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, and I certainly think jamming a bill through the legislature without properly vetting constitutional concerns would be a poor choice,” she said.

On the contrary, Richard Gardner, CEO of cybersecurity firm Modulus, thinks that a nationwide ban of TikTok would drive higher voter engagement on both sides of the question.

“I find it hard to believe that a ban on TikTok would drive voter engagement downward,” he told Cybernews. “If anything, if young voters were extremely upset about the ban, it would drive higher voter engagement, as they would vote to reject those who have supported a ban. Similarly, those who supported hamstringing Chinese authoritarianism would vote in support of those who supported a ban.”

"I find it hard to believe a ban on TikTok would drive voter engagement downward. If anything, if young voters were extremely upset about the ban, it would drive higher engagement, as they would vote to reject those who have supported a ban."

Richard Gardner, cybersecurity expert

Noel Griffith, who runs Supply Gem, a reviewer of business-related digital platforms, isn’t so sure either way.

“Yes, it's possible that China would gain from a ban on ByteDance and TikTok,” he told Cybernews. “It might be interpreted as evidence supporting their claims that democracy is doomed and that the US is unfriendly to Chinese corporations.”

He caveats that prediction, however. “This isn't necessarily the end result, though,” he said. “The US might adopt a more nuanced and fair strategy that aims to safeguard its national security interests while still respecting the rights of foreign businesses in the US. Without outright banning the platform, this might be achieved by placing limitations on ByteDance and TikTok, such as forcing them to adhere to US data security requirements.”

He added: “A TikTok ban's effect on political participation and voter turnout would rely on a number of variables, including the ban's particular justifications and how users and other platforms react.”

US vs China: trade wars and espionage

Ultimately, Gardner thinks China stands to lose more than it could ever gain from a US-wide ban on TikTok.

“With TikTok being directly in the crosshairs of politicians, there are some major winners and losers,” he said. “The most notable loser is China, given that the potential bans are quasi-attacks on the Chinese authoritarian regime.”

But he does agree that to some extent TikTok is essentially seen by the US political establishment as a proxy of China, which major authority figures including FBI director Christopher Wray have fingered as America’s Public Enemy No.1 going forward, eclipsing even Russia.

“TikTok currently serves as the epitome of Chinese digital danger, which also features its new CBDC [central bank digital currency], which will take away financial privacy,” Gardner said. “The threat from China is real. Now, whether TikTok is truly the most concerning actor, though? The jury is still out. This case is more of a proxy fight over the West’s distrust of China than anything related to TikTok specifically.”

Whether or not TikTok is a key danger to American interests as a whole, Gardner doesn’t seem to think it poses much of a threat to the individual user, but he echoes the concerns of Hinkel and Ray that big data could add up to a big headache for US society as a whole if the problem isn’t addressed.

“It isn’t likely that the average TikTok user is in a great deal of individual danger using the app,” he said. “The bigger issue is the footprint of TikTok in the American market, combined with the access that the CCP has to that user base and their collective data. It isn't so much a question of what users share on the app, but, rather, it is the data collection, which includes biometric data, location, device mapping, and personally identifiable information.”

"The threat from China is real. Now, whether TikTok is truly the most concerning actor, though? The jury is still out."

Gardner

Political factions on Capitol Hill certainly stand to gain from pushing through a widespread ban against TikTok, given these fears about the app playing into the wider perception of China as an ever rising threat, one that has been long tipped to rival and even perhaps one day outstrip the US in global economic mastery.

“That means that the biggest winners from bans will be those who support them – that are also in competition for the votes of Americans who view China as a dangerous adversary, a voter bloc which continues to grow as the Chinese threat heightens,” said Gardner.

Griffith agrees that the security concerns over China are genuine, but concedes that this might also conveniently play into a wider trade war between the two economic superpowers.

“I think it's more of a cybersecurity issue – from my tech-background perspective,” he said. “The US government has raised serious concerns about the possibility of user data being misused by the Chinese government, and cited these as the main reason for its pressure on the company to sell or spin off its US operations. But it's true that the ongoing trade tensions between the US and China have also played a role in the TikTok war.”

He also agrees that the big US tech platforms could stand to benefit from a congressional ban on TikTok, which has an estimated 150 million users in the country.

“TikTok has grown to be one of the most popular social media platforms, especially among younger users,” he said. “If it were to disappear, other platforms might try to fill the void. Popular platforms like Instagram and Snapchat may gain from TikTok's absence, as they already have a large user base and video-sharing capabilities.”

Potential surprise winners

But other less well-known digital brands could end up benefiting too, Griffith implies, and he isn’t the only one who thinks so.

“If TikTok were to be banned, there might be other platforms in the wings that end up as unexpected victors,” he said. “The effects of a TikTok ban on the digital and social media sectors will vary depending on a number of variables, such as the ban's particular justifications and how users and other sites react.”

One brand that appears to cherish hopes of being a surprise winner from any TikTok ban is Playsee, which markets itself as a “neighborhood” social media app that aims to bring users from shared local areas together, perhaps even encouraging them to meet IRL, or “in real life,” rather than just interacting remotely.

"If TikTok were to be banned, there might be other platforms in the wings that end up as unexpected victors."

Noel Griffith, business digital platform reviewer

“A TikTok ban would send a ripple effect across the social media landscape,” Veronica Lin of Playsee told Cybernews. “Social media’s ‘next big thing’ has always stemmed from the demands of time – think of TikTok’s initial rise in popularity during the early months of [COVID] quarantine, when people were seeking online community and entertainment, or BeReal’s recent rapid growth as content trends shifted from overly aestheticized and curated to authentic and realistic.”

Lin seems fairly optimistic that this shift by younger social media users towards what older generations used to call normal – that is, face-to-face socializing in real not virtual environments – would be spurred by any discrediting of the more established global platforms.

“Since the current Gen Z culture trends are prioritizing local community and face-to-face interactions over staying glued to one’s phone, it stands to reason that the next iteration of popular social media will be community-based and take users from URL to IRL,” she said.


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