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No, TikTok isn’t like other social media: Ban it today

TikTok logo
AP/Kiichiro Sato
The TikTok app logo is pictured in Tokyo, Sept. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

The drumbeat to ban TikTok grew last week. With CEO Shou Zi Chew under fire testifying in front of Congress and disturbing new details emerging about information abuse, we’re rapidly heading towards a full ban of one of the world’s most visited websites.

Concerns about Tik Tok center on the fact that its parent company, ByteDance, is Chinese-owned, and because of Chinese law, the Chinese government has the right to the data of any Chinese company. This could provide the primary adversary of the U.S. with both granular details on the habits of particular people of interest and the capacity to tilt content towards its agenda, as well as the ability to suppress or ban individuals who are critical of China.

These are not just abstract concerns but rather actual abuses taking place now. The former basketball player and now political activist Enes Kanter Freedom was banned from the platform for 12 days earlier this month, only being reinstated last Thursday, when Chew was testifying on Capitol Hill. China was a regular target for Freedom, so his ban is exactly the type of suppression of speech that critics of the company fear.

A few months earlier, details emerged that ByteDance employees improperly gained access to the user data of three journalists. The abuse was part of an effort to identify leaks and see whether the data would show its employees were in the same location as the journalists. ByteDance apologized when the scandal emerged and fired several employees, but the timing was awful. Exactly when the company was asserting it could be trusted with the data of American users it showed the very abuse that its critics are wary of.

TikTok’s defenders point out that Uber and Facebook have been accused of monitoring the location of journalists as well. Others point out that many of the other popular social media sites — like Instagram and Twitter — harvest enormous amounts of user data, which could also lead to abuse. But of course, none of these social media companies are Chinese-owned. And while it’s time for Congress to work on legislation regulating the aggressive data-harvesting data these social media behemoths engage in, that doesn’t obviate the concerns about TikTok in particular.

Other critics, like Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), suggest that the movement to ban TikTok is born of racism and xenophobia. The issue shouldn’t be painted in those terms. The U.S. is still dealing with the fallout of violence and racism against Asian Americans after COVID-19.  As we denounce such racism, we shouldn’t conflate it with the genuine national security concerns that surround TikTok. Banning TikTok is no more xenophobic than sanctions against Russia.

The most cogent argument against a ban is the ACLU’s, which argues that a ban would erode first amendment protections and provide new powers to the executive branch to control media. This argument is not to be taken lightly, but on balance, the national security concerns of TikTok outweigh the counterargument.

This is to say nothing of the 150 million Americans who use and enjoy TikTok. The joy that they receive from the app, the creativity it engenders, and the careers it has spurred by its creators would be unfortunate casualties resulting from a ban. Views differ on whether ultimately TikTok will be sold off by ByteDance under the pressure of a pending ban, but such a potential sale is the best-case scenario for those who enjoy the app.

The fact is we have already been down this road with a Chinese company. In 2021 the Federal Communications Commission banned several Chinese telecommunications companies, including Huawei, a major Chinese mobile phone and communications company. These bans were essential because critics have credibly described ways in which a company like Huawei could include “kill-switches,” for instance, into telecommunications equipment rendering them useless if the U.S. and China went to war. Some objected to the move — the Chinese certainly did — but Huawei does not have millions of teenagers upset about a ban, so the outrage was muted.

The coming ban on Tik Tok is part of the U.S. pivot on China. The Chinese government’s claims that the U.S. is out to “contain” and “encircle” China aren’t altogether false. But the Chinese are acting like these moves come out of nowhere and the U.S. simply doesn’t like having a rival. Not to mention, It also ignores the fact that the Chinese ban American media companies like Facebook and Twitter.

The fact is the U.S. has spent the last several decades supporting the growth of China and has been betrayed at nearly every turn. The U.S. championed China’s inclusion in global establishments like the World Trade Organization only to have the country abuse its trading partners and build its economy on stolen intellectual property. It has waged cyberwarfare on the U.S. for years and engaged in the exact kind of data abuse for which experts believe TikTok could be a trojan horse.

China can claim what it wants about the evolving U.S. policy posture, but it doesn’t make sense to help an adversary hurt the U.S. The government is taking important steps in its China pivot — from restricting the export of advanced technology to China to supporting the militaries of allies in the Asia/Pacific region

Banning TikTok is just the next prudent step in protecting our national interests. It’s time to make it happen.

Jeremy Hurewitz is a strategic advisor to Interfor International and the founder of Sell Like a Spy. He was previously a freelance journalist based in Shanghai. 

Tags Enes Kanter Freedom Politics of the United States Shou Zi Chew social media regulations TikTok ban TikTok sale

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