Tim Wu Joins The Ban TikTok Parade, Doesn't Clarify What The Ban Actually Accomplishes

from the fluff-and-nonsense dept

I’ve mentioned a few times that I don’t think the TikTok ban is coherent policy.

One, the majority of the politicians pearl clutching over the teen dancing app have been utterly absent from other privacy and security debates (say like U.S. network security flaws or the abuse of location data). In fact, many of them have actively undermined efforts to shore up U.S. privacy and security, whether we’re talking about the outright refusal to fund election security improvements, or repeated opposition to even the most basic of privacy laws for the modern era. Let’s be clear: a huge swath of these folks are simply engaged in performative, xenophobic politics and couldn’t care less about U.S. privacy and security.

Two, banning TikTok doesn’t actually accomplish much of anything. It doesn’t really really thwart Chinese intelligence, which could just as easily buy this data from an absolute ocean of barely regulated international adtech middlemen, obtain it from any one of a million hacked datasets available on the dark net, or steal it from the, you know, millions upon millions of “smart” and IOT devices we attach to our home and business networks with no security and reckless abandon. In full context of the U.S., where privacy and security standards are hot garbage, the idea that banning a Chinese teen dancing app does all that much is just silly.

That said, I remain surprised by the big names in tech policy who continue to believe the Trump administration’s sloppy and bizarre TikTok ban accomplishes much of anything. Case in point: Columbia law professor Tim Wu, whose pioneering work on net neutrality and open platforms I greatly admire, penned a new piece for the New York Times arguing that a “ban on Tiktok is overdue.” Effectively, Wu argues that because China routinely bans U.S. services via its great firewall, turnabout is fair play:

“For many years, laboring under the vain expectation that China, succumbing to inexorable world-historical forces, would become more like us, Western democracies have allowed China to exploit this situation. We have accepted, with only muted complaints, Chinese censorship and blocking of content from abroad while allowing Chinese companies to explore and exploit whatever markets it likes. Few foreign companies are allowed to reach Chinese citizens with ideas or services, but the world is fully open to China?s online companies.”

Wu proceeds to insist that refusing to behave like China and ban their products in retaliation is somehow a sucker’s bet:

“Some think that it is a tragic mistake for the United States to violate the principles of internet openness that were pioneered in this country. But there is also such a thing as being a sucker. If China refuses to follow the rules of the open internet, why continue to give it access to internet markets around the world?”

This being 2020, I suppose I’m not surprised to see the guy who invented the idea of net neutrality advocate that the United States begin behaving more like one of the most repressive countries on the planet in regards to technological openness. The piece doesn’t spend much time (read: none whatsoever) pondering what becomes of the millions of young U.S. content creators who’ll suddenly lose their platform or be shoveled off to Facebook’s dull TikTok clone.

I don’t agree, but at least understand why retaliation is the default instinct for so many folks on this subject given China’s longstanding behavior. My problem, again, is that Wu’s piece lacks any mention of what this singular ban of a teen dancing app actually accomplishes. So we ban TikTok, then what? Do we ban every single Chinese-made “smart” television in the country (TCL has a 16.5% market share)? Every single IOT device? Every crappy Chinese-made router? All global adtech? They’re all technically the same type of threat, and if you’re freaking about one of them, shouldn’t you be advocating for a ban of all of them?

Many TikTok hyperventilators would immediately say, “yes!” We’re to ignore that American governance can’t even currently tie its own shoes, much less help its citizens obtain food, shelter, and aid during an avoidable health crisis. A ban on all domestic Chinese hardware, software, adtech, apps, and services (something you’d need to do to truly follow this retaliatory logic to its ultimate conclusion) is likely impossible. Context matters. And in full context, American security and privacy standards are a dumpster fire, TikTok is among the very least of our worries, and a much broader view of our security and privacy problems is necessary.

If we genuinely wanted to protect U.S. consumer data from bad actors, we’d be funding a major expansion in election security reform. We’d stop kneecapping and under-funding our privacy regulators. We’d pass a basic privacy law for the internet era. We’d hold adtech, telecom, and “big tech” companies genuinely accountable for violating consumer trust. We’d shore up the integrity of our communications networks. We’d help develop and implement security standards for IOT devices. We’d build a coherent framework of policy that protects consumers and businesses from all threats, not just Chinese apps.

To be abundantly clear we aren’t doing this. We’re not even anywhere close to doing this. Instead, we’ve spent the last month freaking out over a teen dancing app (when we weren’t busy trying to ruin encryption). Despite the growing list of big policy names that somehow think this proposal makes sense, I still don’t see the point.

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Companies: bytedance, tiktok

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Comments on “Tim Wu Joins The Ban TikTok Parade, Doesn't Clarify What The Ban Actually Accomplishes”

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

That's self-evident, innit?

"My problem, again, is that Wu’s piece lacks any mention of what this singular ban of a teen dancing app actually accomplishes."

Uh, isn’t that fairly obvious? First recall that this isn’t Tim Wu’s first time tossing an angry glare China’s way. In many ways China incorporates what Wu has spent much of his life fighting. That his father is from Taiwan might add to a certain anti-china sentiment.

He more or less says it straight out – since China bans US apps Wu thinks the US ought to start banning chinese ones. With TikTok just being a precedence case;

"If China refuses to follow the rules of the open internet, why continue to give it access to internet markets around the world?"

I think Wu knows damn well why not, but it’s obvious he’s writing in affect. China does indeed treat the internet as a one-way road. No free country can afford a "great firewall" of chinese standards and few countries can, like China, become completely self-sufficient online – simply because few countries can boast being 17% of the total world population to begin with, with local markets to match.

The problem is, as you highlight, that banning chinese apps and services doesn’t do much. Arguably harming the US far more than China. It’s nothing more than a spiteful gesture, and one which is likely to stay simply a ban on a teen dance app rather than evolve into some form of widespread global sanction on dozens or hundreds of chinese online services.

Koby (profile) says:

Software vs Hardware

So we ban TikTok, then what? Do we ban every single Chinese-made "smart" television in the country (TCL has a 16.5% market share)? Every single IOT device? Every crappy Chinese-made router? All global adtech? Because they’re all technically threats.

There’s a saying nowadays, that if the product is free, then YOU are the product. Hardware manufacturers have an inherent risk, in that if they allow their hardware to be deliberately compromised by state actors, then I can assure you that the imports will be stopped at the boarder, and their sales will plummet.

Not so with popular software apps. Despite Cambridge Analytica, tons of people still choose to use Facebook. Despite the poison and data breaches of social media, it still gets used constantly. You can shut down problematic hardware and exact a price for misbehavior. Not so with foreign software.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Software vs Hardware

Not so with popular software apps. Despite Cambridge Analytica, tons of people still choose to use Facebook. Despite the poison and data breaches of social media, it still gets used constantly. You can shut down problematic hardware and exact a price for misbehavior. Not so with foreign software.

Great, so shut down Facebook, because so far they seem to be far more of a threat than TikTok with confirmed breaches, something I’m not aware of for TikTok.

TikTok isn’t being targeted because they’re a security threat, if that were the case as the article notes there are much bigger fish to go after, they’re being targeted because a bunch of kids used the platform to make Trump feel bad by undermining his covid swap-meet in Tulsa. Treating this all as coming from a legitimate concern for security is not just falling for a lie, it’s falling for a laughably bad one.

Koby (profile) says:

Re: Re: Software vs Hardware

You’re making even less logical sense than normal. You’re saying that it’s easier to switch hardware than software?

Yes, that’s my theory. People will give up hardware if they dont like it, BlackBerry for example, but they’re totally addicted to the software. Most people stay with the compromised apps, even if they buy a new device, and even if they’re told that the app is handing out their data.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Software vs Hardware

"BlackBerry for example, but they’re totally addicted to the software"

Oh, you’re on the opposite side of reality, as usual. The only people I know who have had any problem giving up Blackberry devices are the ones who prefer having a physical keyboard. The software had nothing to do with it, and in fact I can name a few people I knew who hated the OS and messenger software but didn’t want to move because they don’t like the lack of physical feedback when typing. Meanwhile, those same people had zero problem moving to Facebook from MySpace when the software offered them something better.

"even if they’re told that the app is handing out their data"

Same goes for hardware, except most people don’t shell out for new hardware if they can’t afford it. Zero cost software tends to encourage a different behaviour to hardware that needs a few hundred paid every time you try something new.

Then, when you address reality you come across yet another issue – most people use multiple platforms. You might not believe this since all your friends have been kicked off so many of the choices for being racist agitators, but most people use at least 3 or 4 platforms. They will, however, only ise one hardware platform at a time to access them.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Software vs Hardware

I disagree. Most people use multiple social media services, and they cross-post between services. If one of those services becomes redundant, they will drop it as they dropped MySpace when Facebook came along. A TikTok user might keep their FB account open so they can share with their non-TikTok friends, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t switched services.

The mistake is believing that people only use one service exclusively, and that they have to move 100% of what they do elsewhere before switching. This is not how real life operates. Whereas, most people will only use one piece of hardware at a time – nobody’s carrying around 2 phones because they like the features of one phone that aren’t on the seconds.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Software vs Hardware

OK, so I forgot an s services. What iI intended to point out is what Kolby seems to have overlooked is that you can change your phone and keep the same number, and contact with friends etc. You cannot switch social media service in the same fashion, as if you want to stay in contact you need to maintain an account on a service, unless and until you want to stay in touch with moves to a different service.

That is switching hardware is a personal thing, while switching social media services is a group thing.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Software vs Hardware

"Yes, that’s my theory. People will give up hardware if they dont like it, BlackBerry for example, but they’re totally addicted to the software."

That’s…just wrong. Software changes faster than fashion trends. Hardware, otoh, stays around much, much longer. Simply because there are only so many ways you can design and build, for instance, a smartphone, a car, a computer chipset, and still make it work.

You are conflating Brand and **hardware. Pick any of the top hundred smartphones and I’ll show you that stripped of the logo what you have are perhaps half a dozen designs all using the same handful of components put together in mostly the same way.

Pick any given device, collect a hundred examples of that device, and I’ll show you a thousand different combinations of software used, however.
Pick any given user of such a device and I’ll show you how over a ten year period that user changes the software s/he uses for everything – from opening documents or music, to browsing the web, or through which client apps s/he accesses their favorite social platform.

People show loyalty to brand. Not to software. Indirectly people show loyalty to hardware simply because between given technical revolutions hardware simply doesn’t change that much.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Software vs Hardware

"People show loyalty to brand. Not to software."

It can be a little more complicated than that. For example, in the smartphone market people show strong brand loyalty to Apple, but that encompasses both software and hardware. Meanwhile, if someone switches from a Samsung to a Xiaomi phone, or vice versa, are they actually showing loyalty to Android? If they stick with Samsung are they really showing loyalty to Samsung, or are they just upgrading to the best phone they can get for their budget, not caring which they get?

But, overall, what you say is true. The question is why someone would believe that switching devices that might cost hundreds of dollars on a whim is more likely than going to a different website or installing a different app. It’s just a bizarre claim.

"through which client apps s/he accesses their favorite social platform"

I keep mentioning this since it’s a fundamental problem with Koby’s claim that there’s social media monopolies to a great enough degree for them to lose property rights. Most people I know actively use more than one social network, and usually have accounts they occasionally check on others. TikTok may not have replaced Facebook or other services despite their popularity, but in my experience it did lead to a lot of people who used both.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Software vs Hardware

"For example, in the smartphone market people show strong brand loyalty to Apple, but that encompasses both software and hardware. "

That’s my point. Brand loyalty to Apple enforces loyalty to Apple hardware and MacOS/iOS. Apple can – and has – significantly switched both hardware and software around in their career without losing their fan base.

"if someone switches from a Samsung to a Xiaomi phone, or vice versa, are they actually showing loyalty to Android?"

More likely that they’ll have read a few consumer reviews about best phone for the buck. It depends on whether what they want is Android One or if they’d settle for any UI as long as the hardware works.

It still sinks Koby’s argument which turns out to be almost reversed in its assumption – because when the chips are down the trend is that hardware fidelity significantly trumps software fidelity – and both of them are overruled by brand loyalty. The opposite of Koby’s claims, thus, which leads to your comment;

"It’s just a bizarre claim."

I think we both wish Koby didn’t prompt that response so very often…

"…it’s a fundamental problem with Koby’s claim that there’s social media monopolies to a great enough degree for them to lose property rights."

…and I think you just highlighted what exactly the driving force is behind Koby’s reversed "black is white, war is peace" logic. It’s obvious that he isn’t a complete lackwit…except whenever the concept of social platforms tangent the argument and you can suddenly hear his logic breaking. After which what comes out is Orwellian Newspeak.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Software vs Hardware

"It’s obvious that he isn’t a complete lackwit…except whenever the concept of social platforms tangent the argument and you can suddenly hear his logic breaking"

It basically revolves around what the definition of "social network" is. He likes to keep it as narrow as possible, so as to pretend that Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram are all "monopolies", so something "has to be done". It just falls apart when you realise that the definition of "social network" is much bigger than he pretends it is, and he’s just listed a bunch of successful competitors.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Software vs Hardware

"It just falls apart when you realise that the definition of "social network" is much bigger than he pretends it is, and he’s just listed a bunch of successful competitors."

Koby is in many ways an interesting case study – every now and then he presents a logical, well-written comment on topic X, Y or Z…

…but as soon as "freedom of speech" hits the table he switches to another set of parameters where he already has the conclusion narrative and his arguments are desperate attempts to reverse cause and effect. It’s a complete doublethink compartmentalization of a type I’ve only encountered once in person, on a creationist attending the same biology Master’s curriculum I did.

It’s like talking to an otherwise completely functional person only to find out that as soon as you start talking about a specific topic they lose grasp of object permanence, leading to the conversation flying off the rails as if someone nuked the track.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Software vs Hardware

In the minds of people like Koby, sure. In reality, the CA issues had little to do with the way a lot of people engage with Facebook, or it wasn’t a big enough issue for them.

The whole scandal is a major problem for people who care about politics and privacy, but most people don’t. Especially not when they can just use the free method to contact family and friends that they’re used to using with no visible problems.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Who's the greater fool, the fool or the one who follows them?

Trump has got to be laughing his ass off that gullible suckers left and right are coming out of the woodwork to cheer on his temper tantrum, treating it as though it’s legitimately for security rather than him lashing out against a company that helped a bunch of kids punk him.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Who's the greater fool, the fool or the one who follows them

"Trump has got to be laughing his ass off that gullible suckers left and right are coming out of the woodwork to cheer on his temper tantrum…"

I think you give him too much credit. He still feels terrible because people exist who keep calling his bullshit. The idea that teens can punk him through a song-and-dance platform just gnaws at his very heart.

sumgai (profile) says:

It seems to me that no prior commenter, as yet, has seen what’s really driving this trainwreck. Aside from absolutely everyone in the current administration above the rank of dog catcher not knowing how to spell the word ‘technology’, let alone understand it’s most basic precepts, this CF is not, and never was, about security. That’s the Great Red Herring that #45 is dragging across the path.

What’s really driving this, and it should be obvious, is the BrainWreck-in-Charge is attempting a retaliation against a foreign company for a prank pulled on him by Americans. You all do recall that a great number of anti-#45-ers used TikTok to order reservations for the Tulsa rally, yes? And you also know what happened vis-a-vis the actual use of those reservations, right?

Well, #45 has one glaring error in his I/O stack, and that is that he can’t drop a grudge against anyone that he feels slighted him. And like other social media being accused of causing idiots (markdown for strikethrough needed!) conservatives to self-cancel (instead of recognizing their inherently self-destructive emulation of a Jim Jones follower in the first place), TikTok is now being targeted for the actions of others, just because they had the gall to provide the service that was used to pull off this prank.

And for my money, #45 wants TikTok sold to an American company for one reason only – so he can then abuse his power to order them to shut it down, and on the way to that goal, remove all of the offending content (read: the memes that mock him). Yes, he want’s TikTok sold to a large corporation that can afford to buy it, just so he can then remove it from our daily lives…. or so he thinks he can. I’m quite certain that no fair-minded judge is going to simply wave their hand and tell TikTok’s buyer "tough shit, now shut it down".

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: OT, but still:

"Banning craptastic IoT items (including "smart TVs")? Sounds like a plan."

Ah, you mean a set of consumer protection regulations about home electronics? Sounds like a plan indeed. One which in the US, of course, will get sunk because that’s the one place where the government preventing corporate fraud is considered evil.

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