US Tables Bill to Ban TikTok for the Crime of Collecting Personal Information

TikTok, like so many other websites these days, collects personal information. That has caused US lawmakers to table a bill banning it.

TikTok, a video sharing platform, is currently in the crosshairs of US lawmakers. Marco Rubio and Mike Gallagher have tabled the ridiculously named Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act (ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act). The essentially aims to ban TikTok from the US.

These days, every major website collects personal information. How much and to what extent obviously varies from site to site. This includes many US based platforms like Facebook and YouTube. TikTok also collects personal information, which has been common practice for years now. Unfortunately, it is owned by a Chinese based company called ByteDance. Apparently, that makes all the difference for US lawmakers and seems to be what sparked the bill in the first place. It’s the old rule of “it’s only OK when we do it” rule. TikTok, obviously, was not happy about this. From the BBC:

TikTok, which has more than 100 million users in the US, called the measure a “politically-motivated ban that will do nothing to advance the national security of the United States”.

The company added that it was developing plans “that we are well underway in implementing” to further secure the platform in the US as part of the national security review that began under former President Donald Trump.

“We will continue to brief members of Congress on the plans,” it said.

The political attacks on TikTok are indicative of strained relations between the US and China, said Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank based in Washington DC.

But she said she did not think a national ban on TikTok was likely anytime soon, noting that lawmakers have moved slowly to update US data privacy and content moderation rules despite widespread agreement that some changes are necessary.

So far, much of the concern about TikTok and China is based on the potential for abuse and not evidence of it, she added.

“From a privacy standpoint, simply preventing a company like TikTok from operating doesn’t close the gaps,” she said, noting that many other websites collect similar information.

Karl Bode from TechDirt noted the US’s hypocrisy in this situation:

Here’s the thing though: for decades the GOP (and more than a few Democrats) have worked tirelessly to erode FTC privacy enforcement authority and funding, while fighting tooth and nail against absolutely any meaningful privacy legislation for the Internet era. That opened the door for countless app makers, data brokers, telecoms, and bad actors from all over the world (including TikTok) to repeatedly abuse this accountability and oversight free for all.

For years, all you had to do to dodge any scrutiny was claim that the data you’re collecting is “anonymized,” a gibberish term with absolutely no meaning. Most anonymized users can be easily identified with just a smattering of additional datasets, allowing companies all around the globe to build detailed profiles of nearly every aspect of consumer behavior, from shopping and browsing habits to real-world movement and behavior patterns. Not even your health or mental health data is safe, really.

Bluntly, it’s because we spent two decades prioritizing making money over consumer safety or market health. The check is long overdue, and you see the impact every time you turn around in the form of another hack, breach, or privacy scandal.

Of course, this free for all was abused by foreign governments. It was never a question that corruption and a lack of market oversight would be exploited by foreign governments. If you actually care about national security, holding all companies and data brokers accountable for privacy abuses should be your priority. A basic, helpful, well-written privacy law should be your priority. A working, staffed, properly funded FTC should be your priority.

The GOP (and several Democrats) aren’t doing that because U.S. companies might lose some money. Instead, they’re pretending that banning a single app somehow fixes the entirety of a much bigger problem. A problem they genuinely helped create by opposing pretty much any meaningful oversight for any data-hoovering operation, provided they pinky swore they weren’t doing anything dodgy with it.

As we’ve noted several times now, you could ban TikTok immediately and the Chinese government could simply buy this (and more) data from a rotating crop of dodgy data brokers and assorted middlemen. As such, banning TikTok doesn’t actually fix any of the problems here, no matter how many times FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr claims otherwise on the TV.

You can also ban TikTok if you genuinely think it helps, but if you’re not doing the other stuff, you’re not actually doing anything. Another TikTok will simply spring up in its place because you haven’t done anything about the underlying conditions that opened the door to U.S. consumer data abuse by foreign governments. In any way. You’ve just put on a dumb play.

Indeed, we are well aware of the warrantless wiretapping efforts throughout the 2000’s and 2010’s. We are aware of the US PRISM program. We’re also aware of the efforts to ban encryption around the world. So, when it comes to things like that, personal privacy is of no concern for US lawmakers.

Yet, somehow, magically, in this case, when TikTok does what so many other platforms do in that they collect personal information, suddenly, privacy is a huge deal that must be taken seriously. Bode is right in that if personal privacy is a big deal, then overall privacy reform would be a top priority. Unfortunately, privacy reform is not really high in the priority for lawmakers. All of that only fuels the idea that this effort to ban TikTok is more politically motivated.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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