from the performative-face-fanning dept
A week or two ago we noted how there was a mass panic because TikTok was found to be sharing U.S. user data with executives at the company’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance. This was in stark contrast to the strict, U.S.-based data management controls the company claimed to be implementing, and, to be clear, was not a good thing.
But while this showcased how TikTok’s privacy standards are often performative, it wasn’t truly all that different than what happens with countless other domestic and international companies with shitty privacy practices. Vast troves of varying US consumer behavior, location, and browsing and app datasets are bought and sold everyday in the largely unaccountable telecom/adtech/app/hardware data world without anywhere near the same level of hyperventilation TikTok receives.
There’s a tendency among some performative politicians (see: Trump) to specifically single out what TikTok is doing on this front for xenophobic, political, or cronyistic purposes, yet turn a complete blind eye to the broader policy failures that made TikTok (and everybody else’s) lax privacy practices possible in the first place.
That’s been a particular habit of FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, whose public record shows he literally could not give any less of a shit about any of the vast privacy abuses in a sector he actually regulates (telecom), yet loves to head to the fainting couches any time TikTok is mentioned.
Like this week, when Carr sent a letter to Google and Apple demanding they kick TikTok from the app store because he’s just super concerned about American consumer privacy!
If you were to dig through the resulting news reports covering Carr’s empty letter, you’d be hard pressed to find a single one that could be bothered to note that Carr doesn’t have any regulatory authority over social media or app stores, the letter has absolutely no meaningful legal backing to support his request, or that Carr himself has absolutely zero credibility on consumer privacy issues.
Yeah, there are serious concerns about TikTok user security and privacy. But there’s equal concern about the privacy violations in the telecom sector Carr actually regulates. And in adtech. And in the internet of things space. And in Chinese-made routers and other hardware. And among app makers, and data brokers, smart TV makers, Wi-Fi-connected toys, modern vehicles, and….
Carr’s voting and policy record has made it pretty clear he doesn’t care about any of that. The sector Carr actually regulates, telecom, has been plagued with a parade of location data scandals showcasing how cellular carriers have repeatedly failed to protect user location data, often to devastating effect. Carr’s been largely a no show on the subject, despite its increased relevance post Roe.
Several former officials who worked with Carr to help AT&T kill net neutrality and lobotomize the FCC’s consumer protection authority have since gone on to work at Targeted Victory, a right wing K Street policy and lobbying shop recently busted trying to smear TikTok on behalf of Facebook. Surely that’s just a weird coincidence, though.
Not only does pushing scary stories about TikTok help Facebook, it helps feed xenophobia to a growing right wing base proud of its own bigotry. This kind of scary rhetoric is of great benefit to any U.S. company that doesn’t want to compete with China. Of course Carr’s letter also does something else incredibly important (to Carr), it puts his name in headlines for no real reason.
As recently noted, you could demolish TikTok today with a giant patriotic hammer and the Chinese government could just nab much of the same data from any number of unaccountable app makers, telecoms, ad brokers, or hardware giants. And they can do that because we have garbage privacy standards, no functional privacy laws with any teeth, and zero accountability.
That’s directly thanks to politicians like Carr, who don’t believe in meaningful privacy oversight, laws, or guidelines of any kind.
It’s extremely easy for U.S. companies like Facebook or Cisco to use politicians as marionettes to create or feed moral panics about China. But the underlying motivations usually have absolutely nothing to do with a genuine interest in US consumer privacy or security. Made evident by those same politicians’ completely hollow track record when it comes to tackling the broader problem.