TikTok ban stifles internet innovation

The popularity of TikTok, a Chinese-owned short-form video-sharing app, has prompted concerns among American politicians and proposals to ban the platform.

While data exfiltration concerns are hard to allay, the costs of banning TikTok far outweigh any national security benefits.

TikTok isn’t a particularly unique or valuable source of American data, but it is a powerful distributor of American culture. Banning TikTok would quash the voices of Americans favoring the platform and undermine the open internet that has served America so well.

Concerns about TikTok fall into two categories: Critics fear that TikTok’s algorithm could be manipulated to serve Chinese interests, and that user data could be collected and misused by the Communist Party of China.

The first concern is ably addressed by TikToks Project Texas, a deal with Oracle to host TikTok in America on Oracle servers, where its algorithm can be tested. The second is more difficult to dispel.

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Like other apps, TikTok collects user information such as location and stored media. TikTok needs this data to host and serve user discourse, but it can be misused.

Unlike other apps, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is based in China, where it is subject to China’s National Intelligence Law. According to the law, China can require its citizens and companies to provide relevant data for state intelligence work.

There is no evidence that TikTok is spying for the CCP. ByteDance’s only demonstrable misuse of user data was to track down employees who leaked information to reporters. But data leaks and employee access is hard to control.

According to the National Intelligence Law, there is always a risk that ByteDance will be forced to share TikTok user data with the CCP.

Furthermore, there’s little reason to believe that TikTok is a unique intelligence goldmine. Other apps collect similar information, TikTok isn’t the only Chinese app used by Americans, and many of the more sensitive information TikTok collects, such as the user’s location, can be purchased from unscrupulous data brokers.

In the absence of broader data protections, banning TikTok at best forces China to buy Americans’ data instead of getting it for free.

To obtain vital data, China has repeatedly hacked American companies and the American government itself. In 2015, Chinese hackers stole 22 million background check records from the Office of Personnel Management. He even flew balloons loaded with antennas over the United States. TikTok is not the point.

In light of China’s security law, it makes sense to ban TikTok on government devices and government employee devices. But a general ban would do little good and much harm. Concerns about misuse of American data are being better addressed by new data security laws.

America has benefited enormously from the open and international internet, which has brought TikTok to our shores. Most of the globally successful internet platforms are American. TikTok’s unique success is no reason to overturn a system that continues to serve us well.

Indeed, the rest of the world has long tolerated the risk that American tech companies could be forced to share data with our government via national security letters. This Patriot Act authority allows the FBI to request data from private companies and prevents recipients from disclosing having received such requests.

Banning TikTok or forcing ByteDance to phase it out will invite opportunistic demands for local branches, data localization and other digital protectionism overseas. This will not only hurt American companies, but American speakers and listeners as well.

Globally successful American platforms such as Instagram and YouTube and, now, TikTok, are powerful channels of American culture and ideas. That’s why China bans TikTok at home, limiting Chinese users to a heavily censored alternative called Douyin. Indeed, TikTok is difficult to ban via executive order due to the Berman Amendment, a late-Cold War-era law that exempts the flow of information from certain penalties.

Proposed federal legislation against TikTok, such as the RESTRICT Act, would give the government new powers to control Americans’ use of foreign web services. And statewide, Montanas recently inadmissiblely signed off on dragon app stores to enforce the TikTok ban. This is a dangerous precedent to set, both domestically and for foreign lawmakers.

Ultimately, a TikTok ban would hurt American users at home and American companies abroad, doing almost nothing to curb Chinese data collection.

Instead of restricting Americans’ access to particular platforms, policy makers should work toward general rules for specific types of sensitive information.

Will Duffield is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, where he studies Internet discourse and governance. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.

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