A U.S. Senator Says His New TikTok Ban Is Just Good Business

A U.S. Senator Says His New TikTok Ban Is Just Good Business

For years, American politicians have worked to ban TikTok over privacy and national security concerns. But the leaky ad businesses of other tech companies, including American ones, could expose data to the Chinese Communist Party in the exact same ways, and the U.S. government’s technical evidence to demonstrate why TikTok is thin. Sen. Mark Warner is about to introduce yet another bill that would ban TikTok, and on Sunday he acknowledge a motivating factor that’s a bit clearer: business competition.

“China is investing in economic areas, they have $US500 ($694) billion in intellectual property theft, and we are in a competition not just on a national security basis, [but] on a technology basis,” Warner said in an interview with Fox News. “We’ve got to make the kind of investments to stay ahead, and I think we’re starting that in a bipartisan way.”

Warner said he will introduce a bill co-sponsored by Republican Sen. John Thune this week that would “ban or prohibit” foreign technology when it’s necessary. “TikTok is one of the potentials,” Warner said. The bill is slated to hit the Senate floor Thursday.

The Virginia Democrat has been a leader on privacy issues, pushing regulation while many of his colleagues do little more than talk. The Senator argued that economics and national security are inextricably intertwined. “What worries me more with TikTok is that this could be a propaganda tool,” Warner said. “The kind of videos you see would promote ideological issues.”

Warner said the app feeds Chinese kids more videos about science and engineering than American children, suggesting the app’s content recommendation system is tuned for China’s geopolitical ambitions.

But the Senator’s comments about economic competition are a rare admission that the government’s effort to ban TikTok is motivated by business as much as direct threats to national security. Warner mentioned two successes along this route, including the CHIPS+ bill, which worked to bring computer chip manufacturing back to the US, and the ban on Huawei, another Chinese company which, notably, was discussed as a security threat over data concerns.

Warner’s “concern has been in no small part about the potential for a company ultimately beholden to the Chinese Community Party to be deployed in a variety of nefarious means, should the CCP direct it to do so,” said Rachel Cohen, Warner’s communications director. TikTok’s social media dominance could be a problem if the app is directed to do the Chinese government’s bidding, Cohen said.

TikTok has censored content that’s critical of the Chinese government, but as far as we know, that’s happening in China. If you search “Chinese protests” on TikTok, you get countless results, many featuring videos of recent protests and violence by state actors, as well as a link to the Wikipedia entry on the 2011 Chinese pro-democracy protests. So far, there is no evidence that TikTok is interfering with content for its American audience to further the Chinese government’s aims — though the possibility is there.

“We hope that Congress will explore solutions to their national security concerns that won’t have the effect of censoring the voices of millions of Americans,” said a TikTok spokesperson. “We hope that politicians with national security concerns will encourage the Administration to conclude its national security review of TikTok.

Sen. Thune did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

TikTok’s privacy concerns are real, and they deserve attention. Like all social media apps, TikTok harvests data for its advertising business. By Chinese law, TikTok could theoretically be forced to hand that data over to the communist party. The company has also demonstrated a willingness to use its data for unscrupulous purposes. CEO Shou Chew reportedly admitted the company used TikTok app data to spy on journalists and its own employees.

However, these privacy risks are not unique to TikTok. As Warner put it, “we’ve got to have a systemic approach.”

Banning the app won’t keep data out of the hands of the Chinese government because the entire internet is built to share data with anyone and everyone who wants it. There’s only one way to clamp down on data: laws that apply to every company.

“I’m not at all saying TikTok is innocent, but focusing specifically on one app from one country is not going to solve whatever problem you think you’re solving. It truly misses the point,” said David Kahn Gillmor, a senior staff technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, in an interview with Gizmodo last week. “Do we really think that Facebook or Google are not capable of being influenced by the Chinese government? They know a market when they see one. I think the pressure that’s building is basically a race to be seen as tough on China.”

Last week, a Gizmodo report demonstrated that over 28,000 apps send data to TikTok, and there’s even more widespread data collection across the web. Worse, another Gizmodo investigation in 2020 showed many popular American apps send data to China because they partner with Chinese advertising companies, including Gmail, Instagram, Facebook, SnapChat, YouTube, and even Yahoo. These Chinese ad tech vendors could be forced to hand over data, just like TikTok — in theory.

Even if you put a stop to all of that, the Chinese government could just buy American user data from one of the hundreds of American data brokers who have it for sale. Why? Because there are fundamentally zero nationwide laws about privacy in the US.

A number of major foreign powers aren’t convinced that TikTok is a threat. The UK and New Zealand governments declined to ban the app from official devices, leaving it up to individual agencies instead. TikTok is banned on government devices in a number of places, however, including the EU, Canada, and the US.

The upcoming bill from Sens. Warner and Thune is just one of a growing list of attempts to block TikTok from the American marketplace. Most recently, the Biden administration gave federal agencies 30 days to ban TikTok from government devices and “prohibit internet traffic from reaching the company.” Shortly thereafter, a fast-tracked Republican bill that would give Biden the authority to ban TikTok nationwide sailed through committee. So far, details about the latest bill from Senator Warner aren’t available, so it isn’t clear how it would differ from existing legislation.

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