The Great TikTok Moral Panic Continues As White House Fends Off Calls For A Ban. For Now.

from the teen-dancing-is-the-greatest-threat-the-nation-has-ever-faced dept

We’ve noted repeatedly how the massive freak out over TikTok is kind of dumb and myopic, with folks singularly fixated on TikTok, but not the lax global adtech, data broker ecosystem we built that helped create it in the first place.

We’ve also noted that most of the U.S. policy solutions for the supposed threat posed by TikTok (that it will be used by the Chinese government to spy on and brainwash your children) have been equally stupid. Like that time Trump pretended to care about privacy then tried to offload the entire company to his buddies at Walmart and Oracle for the safety of America’s toddlers or what have you.

Enter the Biden administration, which is purportedly working on a deal with TikTok and ByteDance that would let the company keep operating in the United States, but would implement some guard rails in terms of the company’s data security and governance. But it sounds like the deal isn’t going that well:

The two sides are still wrangling over the potential agreement. The Justice Department is leading the negotiations with TikTok, and its No. 2 official, Lisa Monaco, has concerns that the terms are not tough enough on China, two people with knowledge of the matter said. The Treasury Department, which plays a key role in approving deals involving national security risks, is also skeptical that the potential agreement with TikTok can sufficiently resolve national security issues, two people with knowledge of the matter said. That could force changes to the terms and drag out a final resolution for months.

The White House appears to be avoiding a TikTok ban for now. But they do seem to be continuing a key “solution” for TikTok begun in the Trump administration. And that is, basically tethering much of the app to Oracle, a U.S. company with a long history of privacy violations, cozying up to China, super dodgy legal and lobbying practices, and a CEO who may or may not believe in this whole democracy thing:

First, TikTok would store its American data solely on servers in the United States, probably run by Oracle, instead of on its own servers in Singapore and Virginia, two of the people said. Second, Oracle is expected to monitor TikTok’s powerful algorithms that determine the content that the app recommends, in response to concerns that the Chinese government could use its feed as a way to influence the American public, they said.

Tethering TikTok to a dodgy company like Oracle isn’t actually much of a solution, but it allows folks to feel like they’re doing something. Still, actual policy solutions to TikTok are likely going to prove hard to come by. In large part because the TikTok policy conversation is predominately being driven by bad faith operators who don’t actually care about the real underlying issue: consumer privacy.

Trump never actually cared about kids being spied on, he just saw an opportunity for some cronyism and xenophobic saber rattling. Politico’s new Billionaire owner Mathias Döpfner doesn’t actually care about consumer privacy, he cares about hamstringing a mindshare competitor.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, an avid leader in the “ban TikTok” movement, has never shown the slightest interest in consumer privacy at his day job at the FCC, but has found the subject a great way to gain political brownie points among the China-phobic. Then there’s Facebook, whicho has already been caught several times spreading moral panic stories about TikTok in the press.

There’s no shortage of Silicon Valley executives who can’t engineer a better alternative and simply don’t want to compete with a popular Chinese app. Then there’s no shortage of DC politicians who are simply racist, but like to hide that racism under the veneer of national security.

That’s all to say that while there are very valid concerns about TikTok and the data it collects, most of the folks most vocally heading to the fainting couch don’t actually care about the supposed underlying issue: consumer privacy. Countless folks just hear the word “China” and their brain simple goes into a bizarre autopilot mode. That’s not a great place to start from when crafting policy.

Again, we created a massive adtech and data broker ecosystem in which consumer privacy has long taken a backseat to making money. So even if you ban TikTok tomorrow, China (or any other government or company) can still access much of the same U.S. consumer location, browsing, facial recognition, and behavior data from an absolute ocean of dodgy middlemen who see very little in the way of meaningful accountability. Many of the same folks complaining about TikTok proudly built that environment.

In that sense, the fixation on TikTok is a giant distraction from our real failure: consumer privacy and consumer protection. But guys like Mark Zuckerberg or Mathias Döpfner don’t want to actually have that conversation, as the end result might be new US privacy rules and laws that would trim a few zeroes off of their total net worth.

Guys like Brendan Carr don’t really want to have that conversation either, as it would advertise that the policies they support (like say stripping away broadband privacy rules at the FCC, or fighting every effort at a national privacy law if it upsets AT&T) routinely created the environment that allowed companies to abuse consumer trust and privacy with relative impunity for decades.

With bad faith actors leading the charge I’m not sure any of this ends well.

It’s pretty clear most of the loudest TikTok critics are perfectly ok with abusing platforms to spread propaganda, or over-collecting, abusing, and failing to secure consumer data, but only if we’re the ones doing it. But you can’t separate the two things; creating a zero accountability privacy-hoovering data broker hellscape created the problems with TikTok.

Just banning a single app doesn’t fix the actual problem. But we don’t want to fix the actual problem (our lax consumer protection and privacy standards) because some wealthy men in the U.S. might lose money. So instead we’re getting a series of face-fanning performances that will, ultimately, probably accomplish nothing.

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Companies: oracle, tiktok

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Comments on “The Great TikTok Moral Panic Continues As White House Fends Off Calls For A Ban. For Now.”

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17 Comments
zanmanoodle (profile) says:

The panic over TikTok re: China and spying is definitely a bit silly.

IMO the bigger danger of TikTok is how it spreads (mis)information, and how it affects mental health. It’s all the nasty things about social media condensed into a massive firehose of content. Poorly-labeled ads, unchecked misinfo, and the myriad types of content that makes users just feel worse about themselves (but they keep going through it all for those little dopamine hits). This is all common to social media generally, but I have the unscientific opinion that TikTok is a purer kind of drug.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

I’m more than happy to have Bytedance move their Singapore servers to the US as a sign of good faith.

Just to clarify, any company that originates from China is likely to have some top CCP officials in high enough positions. You don’t get big in China solely by being a good product, as China’s gaming industry shows (and by extension, the Jack Ma thing). You need to be approved by the CCP.

And Karl is 100% right on the money, regardless of my biases. Xi and his cronies can simply BUY the info because they have the money and the US has non-existent consumer data and privacy protections.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Your fix is correct, no doubt about it.

It sure seems strange to me that the very ones who are shitting their pants about Tik-Tok are also the exact some ones who still support #45 … and yet no one else seems to have made that correlation. At least not publicly.

As to Oracle being a potential “warden” of our privacy…. wasn’t Larry Ellison the one who said “The privacy you’re concerned about is largely an illusion.”, or some such stupidity? Seems like a “business as usual” operation for a gen-u-wine government sponsored/mandated cluster-fuck if I ever saw one.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

So was anime.

And D&D.

And video games.

And metal.

And rock.

And music that didn’t align to the majority opinion.

And swimsuits.

And upward mobility.

And the civil rights movement.

And the abolition of slavery.

And giving women the right to vote.

The rich and powerful would prefer if we simply became farmers or other useful, obedient cogs in the wheel of civilization, not empowered individuals with agency.

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