The Dumb Right Wing Push To Ban TikTok Misses The Bigger Picture
from the you're-not-helping dept
Last week FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr made headlines by sending a letter to Apple and Google demanding they ban TikTok. Journalists couldn’t be bothered to mention the FCC has no authority over app stores or social media, the letter had no legal backing, or that Carr (a captured regulator largely loyal to AT&T) has no credibility on consumer privacy issues and was largely just publicity hunting.
“The FCC wants to ban TikTok because it’s a spying tool of the Chinese government” was the implication in a news cycle that’s now lasted more than a week. The Federalist belatedly joined the fray with a story also calling for an outright ban of the app (I’m quoting but not linking because it’s a garbage disinformation mill that doesn’t deserve Techdirt reader clicks, but is representative of thinking on this front).
The piece and Carr highlight the numerous times TikTok has played fast and loose with U.S. consumer data, then proceed to claim TikTok should be banned because it’s a bad actor on privacy:
Given all these concerns about TikTok, Carr’s request of Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores is reasonable and not unprecedented. In 2020, India banned more than 100 Chinese apps, including TikTok, claiming these Chinese apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting user data in an unauthorized manner.”
The Federalist weirdly fails to mention that Google and Apple don’t technically have to respond because there’s no legal basis for Carr’s request. It also fails to mention Carr and the FCC don’t regulate app stores or social media. And it fails to mention this stuff because this is all just a dumb performance that has nothing to do with actually protecting consumer privacy.
Recall, Carr is a guy who spent years arguing on behalf of AT&T that the FCC had no authority to police bad behavior by telecom giants (it does). He’s now arguing the FCC has the authority to tell Apple, Google, and TikTok want to do (it doesn’t). If you’ve tracked Carr’s trajectory from crying about FCC overreach on net neutrality to his actual overreach here, the inconsistency is stunning.
One thing Carr and the Federalist don’t understand (because it would require some functional introspection), is that TikTok’s privacy abuses are a byproduct of Carr and his friends’ own shitty policy positions on privacy rules, guidelines, and reform.
In perfect lockstep with the GOP, Carr has repeatedly opposed any meaningful privacy oversight of industry, whether it’s abuses in adtech, telecom, data brokerage, media, or the internet of things. He (and the GOP) demolished FCC broadband privacy rules. They oppose even a basic federal privacy law. From start to finish, they’ve supported the zero accountability snoopvertising free-for-all TikTok now exploits.
The end result has been just a parade of scandals where companies over-collect data, fail to secure that data from hackers, or sell that data to any nitwit with a nickel. And face little more than a light wrist slap, if that. Most politicians have done absolutely nothing about any of this because the dysfunction (much like the broadband monopolies Carr also ignores) is hugely profitable.
As a result, what TikTok does isn’t unique. There’s just an absolute avalanche of services and apps, foreign and domestic, collecting and monetizing your every movement and brain fart, from your electric meter and smartphone to your cloud-based router and diet app. Singling out on China and TikTok exclusively indicates to me you generally don’t understand how any of this works.
We’ve built a giant, unaccountable, data hoovering mess. All overseen by politicians and regulators like Carr, who don’t believe in real oversight. Sure, Carr occasionally shows up to hyperventilate on US consumer privacy, but only when China’s involved. He’s utterly absent on broader privacy issues, especially in the sector he actually regulates (telecom).
He’s been a no show on the widespread abuse of location data, and he’s had nothing to say about the potential access and abuse of that data by randos in the wake of the unpopular GOP demolition of Roe. In fact I’d wonder if this latest hyperventilation about TikTok isn’t also an attempt to distract from that policy dysfunction.
Here’s the thing: you could smash TikTok into a million pieces today with your giant patriotic hammer, and Chinese intelligence could immediately turn right around and buy (and abuse) just an endless parade of US consumer data from no limit of other companies. And they can do that because regulators and lawmakers like Carr have actively supported an accountability-optional data free-for-all.
During its tenure, the Trump administration made it repeatedly clear it couldn’t care less about widespread privacy abuses, both foreign and domestic. They were singularly focused on creating moral panics about TikTok not because they care about privacy (or even Chinese spying), but because they wanted to offload a hugely successful overseas company to their friends at Walmart and Oracle.
The Federalist again proposes “fixing” the problem by offloading TikTok to a U.S. company:
Apple and Google should comply with Carr’s request and remove TikTok from their app store immediately. As for the Biden administration, rather than courting TikTok influencers, it should make ByteDance divest TikTok’s U.S. operation to an American company right away. If ByteDance refuses, the administration must ban TikTok from operating in the U.S.
Yeah, TikTok and its potential tethers to the Chinese government pose a privacy risk. But it’s not a particularly unique threat in an environment where widespread, international overcollection and abuse of user data is the norm. If you’re not fighting for reform on the latter, you’re not really helping the former.
If you actually wanted to protect U.S. consumer privacy, you’d take aim at the broader environment that makes TikTok consumer data abuse so easy in the first place. You’d advocate for stricter guidelines and oversight as it pertains to data collection and monetization across numerous offender industries. That way you’d have greater protections against the exploitation of user data, be it by TikTok or anybody else.
Instead, the goal here is largely about creating moral panics about the Chinese, putting a political hopeful’s name in lights, and creating alt-reality partisan fanfiction fodder for the base:
Also, keep in mind Facebook was just busted using a right-wing PR firm to smear TikTok in the press, so again, a lot of what’s motivating some of these folks isn’t genuine consumer privacy protection, it’s just dumb old cronyism. Not to mention that one of Targeted Victory’s top execs… used to work at the FCC. So, this whole thing again appears to be manufactured nonsense.
On the plus side, it’s not hard to single out bad faith folks on the privacy front. They’re usually fairly obvious because while they’ll suffer an absolute embolism about China and/or TikTok, they’ll be complete and total no shows on any effort for broader privacy reform or accountability.