It’s the great TikTok panic – and it could accelerate the end of the internet as we know it
TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, discovered during his five-hour grilling by US Congress what Huawei could have told him all along: being owned by a Chinese company is bad for business.
In fact, the panic over TikTok is a lot like like Huawei and 5G all over again. The security and privacy risks are plausible, but largely without evidence. What this is really about is trust, trade and geopolitics.
The US hearings took place as the UK extended its ban of TikTok to the parliamentary estate, after initially banning the app from central government officials’ work phones. Canada, the EU and several member states have implemented partial bans.
Yet rather than taking this moment as an opportunity to revisit why democratic societies have allowed tech companies to make pervasive data collection and monitoring the norm, policymakers are rushing through bans that sit uncomfortably with the liberal democratic tradition, and are likely to accelerate the fragmentation of the internet.
TikTok makes money by collecting data on its users and feeding them exactly what they’ve been profiled to respond to, including the goods and services of advertisers. That’s the business model of every free-to-use social media platform, and TikTok is particularly good at it. Nearly 70% of American teenagers use the app, while only 30% of the same age group use Facebook. By some estimates, young people open the app up to 19 times a day.
But the business model that TikTok shares with its US rivals does not seem to bother policymakers that much. Their anxieties are about whom that data is shared with. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is Chinese – and the security concerns are real. There is China’s weak rule of law, human rights concerns regarding the oppression of Uighur Muslims, and the use of technology to enforce social and political conformity to think about. There are also worries about its national security laws, which compel companies to share data with the government. Put together all the data, including device, location, IP address, content viewed, duration and frequency of use, engagement with other users and an authoritarian state, and you have a combustible mix.
We also can’t forget the lessons learned from the 2016 US presidential elections and the Brexit referendum onward, which indicate that hostile actors can and do manipulate algorithms designed for advertising, and subvert them for political ends. With TikTok, where the user population is young and vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation (whether towards terrorism, political radicalisation or harmful body-image anxiety), those risks are acute.
As the bans mount up, TikTok has been rushing to implement confidence-building measures. The detail of its initiatives, Project Clover in the EU and Project Texas in the US, seems compelling. User data will be kept onshore in the EU or US, data practices will be vetted by trusted third parties – such as Oracle in the US – and there will be a default 60-minute screen time limit for young people.
But, as with Huawei, this is not going to be enough because this was never about the details. As was clear from Congress’s aggressive questioning of TikTok’s CEO, in which he was often interrupted and talked over, US policymakers don’t think they need more information. They want to communicate their distrust of China in the context of worsening geopolitical and economic tensions.
This is bad news for the internet. In its early years, shared physical infrastructure and lightweight interoperable digital architecture were felt to be a shared public good. Everyone, no matter what their political differences, had an interest in getting online.
Today, the tendrils of geopolitics extend into the deepest layers of the technical architecture, from undersea cables to semiconductors, to emerging technical standards. China, and Chinese companies including Huawei, have even put forward proposals at technical standards bodies that would fundamentally change the architecture of the internet, fragmenting its common structure.
Related: Key takeaways from TikTok hearing in Congress – and the uncertain road ahead
This might not be surprising given China’s attitude towards the free flow of data; what is more concerning is seeing advanced democracies – which were supposed to fly the flag for a single, global internet – contribute to the same fragmentary tendency. A ban on TikTok would be a relief for some of its US rivals, providing them with a precious window in which to up their game with younger generations. But it’s the constitutional impact of a ban that should be troubling in the land of the first amendment.
As TikTok’s popularity among young people only grows, the high politics of the current debate marginalises the genuine concerns – about addiction, the impact on mental health and body image – of that most vulnerable segment of our societies.
Advanced democracies have an opportunity to have a grown-up debate on how to hold a global internet together while respecting political differences, protecting free expression and supporting the most vulnerable. Instead, the incredible benefits of our shared digital architecture are being washed away in thoughtless, kneejerk responses to the economic and political rise of China.
Emily Taylor is an associate fellow in the International Security Programme, Chatham House, CEO of Oxford Information Labs and editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy