Are we being prejudiced with social media and big tech?
TikTok faces a real threat of being banned in many Western countries including the US and Australia. Suddenly big tech companies that are Chinese owned with a large customer base face some head winds.
It isn’t the first time this has happened. In 2020, the Chinese government was forced to sell the popular gay dating app Grindr due to pressure from the US government. Now TikTok is under the spotlight because of actual or perceived privacy and security risks causing unfettered access to personal information. Emphasis on perceived, as we don’t have a lot of data to go on.
A couple of weeks ago, TikTok’s Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew, appeared before Congress to address worries over TikTok’s China-based parent company ByteDance and address lawmakers’ calls to ban the platform nationwide.
The US hearings took place as the UK extended its ban on 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. Here in New Zealand MP’s are banned from having TikTok on their devices.
The social media giant is profitable because it collects information on its users and then serves them content, including advertisements. It is the standard business model of every free-to-use social media platform so why single out TikTok?
Perhaps it could be because nearly 70% of American teenagers use the app, while only 30% of the same age group use Facebook. See Statista stats. By some estimates, young people open the app up to 19 times a day.
For TikTok’s US rivals, this model has generally been accepted the world over. However, in focus of late is the data sharing arrangements between TikTok’s users and parent company ByteDance and China.
Online commentators point to differences in the rule of law, human rights approaches, privacy concerns and the use of technology for political conformity as potential reasons for user concern.
Discussion has also focused on China’s national security laws that compel companies to share their data with the government. This includes device, location, IP address, content viewed, duration and frequency of use, and engagement with other users.
As more countries start to ban the app, TikTok has announced a number of changes to its platform and business practices. 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.
The Uncertain Road Ahead
It is concerning to see Western countries that originally campaigned for a single, global interoperable internet, contributing to the same fragmentary tendency. These countries have an opportunity to work together in global forums such as the Internet Governance Forum and the International Telecommunications Union to hold a global internet together while respecting each other’s political differences.
The USA Patriot Act and the 2017 Chinese Law
Contributing to the problems are two global surveillance regimes. Firstly, the US Patriot Act collects the world’s data for any activities within the United States. Secondly, Chinese Law applies to companies in China regardless of their country of origin. While there are some similarities, there are also key differences between the two.
The Patriot Act after 911 enhanced the government’s ability to detect and prevent future terror attacks. It allowed for the collection of personal data – phone and internet records – from individuals and organisations without a warrant.
The 2017 Chinese Law is focused on cybersecurity and national security concerns. It requires technology companies that operate in China to provide the Chinese government with access to their networks and data. The law also requires companies to store data on servers located within China and to provide encryption keys to the Chinese government if requested.
One key difference between the two laws is the scope of their application. The USA Patriot Act applies only to activities within the United States, while the Chinese law applies to companies operating within China regardless of their country of origin. Additionally, while the USA Patriot Act is primarily concerned with preventing terrorism, Chinese law is focused on broader national security concerns.
The other key difference is the level of transparency and oversight. The USA Patriot Act includes provisions for oversight by the judiciary and Congress, and the government is required to report on its use of the law. The Chinese law, however, provides for oversight by the government itself, with little transparency or public reporting.
What is going to happen?
It’s been made clear that new entrants to the tech landscape operating in certain parts of the world are at risk of being banned in many other countries. If it does happen, it could pave the way for some of TikTok’s competitors to attempt to capture TikTok’s Gen Z audience. What we might also see is more government and regulatory intervention to ensure a level playing field for open and fair competition and to contribute to sustainable development of the global tech industry. Watch this space.