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India’s TikTok Ban Dispels the Myth of the ‘China Bogeyman’

by | Jul 7, 2020 | New, News

Happiness is not by chance, but by choice.

— Jim Rohn

In April 2018, as Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal, photojournalists captured a fascinating line of argument in the Facebook founder’s typed notes: “breakup strengthens Chinese companies,” it read. This defense, which the company’s executives have repeatedly wielded in the last two years, argues that Senators Lindsey Graham and Elizabeth Warren and many others’ concerns over Facebook’s monopoly power are misplaced. If Congress broke up or regulated Facebook, or another US tech giant, then regulation-free Chinese companies would come to dominate the world. Chinese monoliths could continue to exploit digital markets through privacy invasion, algorithmic processing, and participation in industrial policy with China’s government with impunity. Regulation would also allow US companies to be bludgeoned to oblivion because they’d lose the ability to personalize social feeds and manipulate the media experience to maximize user engagement. Eric Schmidt has also suggested that breaking up big tech will only help China. Indeed, this argument has resonated even in Congress, given the concerns over American economic security it implicitly raises.

Many experts have called Zuckerberg’s argument empty and misleading. Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, for example, describes this as “spinning up the China bogeyman,” a strategy that “allows the companies to portray their size and the vast amounts of data they store about individuals as a national asset and an antidote to the big firms and big data of China.”

WIRED OPINIONABOUT

Dipayan Ghosh is the author of Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive by Design. He leads the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, and prior worked as a policy advisor at Facebook and the Obama White House.

Last week settled the debate once and for all, and fully revealed the hollowness of the bogeyman theory. On Monday, Indian regulators enacted a hard ban on TikTok and 58 other Chinese applications, citing concerns over national security triggered by radical privacy violations that these apps committed against Indian users. While many in the Indian digital rights camp are decrying the decision, the government ban shouldn’t be seen only as a political move in response to rising military tensions, but rather as a strong statement that India will not stand for violations of user privacy enabled by apps like TikTok.

Scrutiny over TikTok began to reach a fever pitch in April, when a Reddit user under the handle bangolol posted an analysis—which has since circulated far and wide in the technical community—contending that the TikTok app radically invaded privacy. Bangorlol, who apparently reverse-engineered the app, suggested that TikTok collects troves of data on its users. Hardware IDs, memory usage, apps installed, IP addresses, Wi-Fi access points, GPS pings at a temporal resolution of 30 seconds—these are just some of the categories of data that bangorlol claimed TikTok pulls. (To its credit, TikTok openly discloses in its privacy policy that it will “automatically collect certain information from you when you use the Platform, including internet or other network activity information such as your IP address, geolocation-related data … unique device identifiers, browsing and search history.”) These concerns appear to have been echoed by American politicians on both sides of the aisle, with Senator Marco Rubio complaining about the app’s tendency to censor content that is not aligned with the Chinese Communist party’s political interests, and Senator Chuck Schumer denouncing the app’s privacy implications in that TikTok stores “massive amounts of personal data accessible to foreign governments.”

Bangorlol, meanwhile, also alleged the app is designed to disproportionately engage new users to keep them hooked to the platform, and, perhaps most insidiously, that TikTok has designed the app such that if someone attempts to debug or reverse-engineer it, the app will recognize that and effectively work to continue to conceal its exploitative qualities. “They don’t want you to know how much information they're collecting on you,” bangorlol wrote. (TikTok is yet to respond to this report directly, but the company has noted that it sends no user data to China and that it has “no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the U.S.”)

Damning as these accusations are, we’ve seen similarly shady practices from American platforms in recent years. The emotional contagion fiasco in which users’ News Feeds were manipulated to experiment with their mental states; the Cambridge Analytica revelation; a series of anticompetitive practices; an onslaught of one privacy violation after the next—these incidents were attributable to Facebook alone. Informed users have grown accustomed to hearing much about the privacy and security woes concerning use of internet-connected modern technology. As Eric Schmidt has also suggested, privacy itself is an antiquated notion. Many users have come to accept and expect that by using online platforms they must relinquish data privacy.

The threat to China’s place in the digital economy is apparent, spurred by the Reddit post and backed up by the economic force of the ban in India, which will shut TikTok out of the world’s largest democracy. We have seen mounting evidence for the rejection of invasive technologies across the world, including concerns over TikTok in Pakistan, national bans of Huawei (including in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan), and of Zero-Rating programs—arrangements by which ISPs typically partner with third parties to provide free data services to users in developing countries if they use certain applications. The reality is many governments will not hesitate to shut out exploitative technology and will instead favor services that originate from nations that favor democratic governance and an open approach to the internet—precisely because they produce fair, regulated economic norms for technology companies.

The broader consumer internet industry is one that feeds off a “tracking-and-targeting” business model that features harvesting user data to the end of behavioral profiling alongside highly sophisticated but tremendously opaque algorithms that manipulate the consumer’s digital media experience. We’ve become used to this. And yet, the strategies that TikTok has allegedly implemented are nevertheless alarming. We should recognize that the intense pressure on Silicon Valley to clean up its act since the 2016 presidential election will not have gone for naught. The dominant American internet platforms have responded—for instance, Facebook shut down Partner Categories, one of Facebook’s data-sharing programs with third-party data brokers. Bangorlol’s post concludes with an acknowledgement that the US platforms Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter “don't collect anywhere near the same amount of data that TikTok does”—that it’s “like comparing a cup of water to the ocean.”

In the coming months, we can expect the internet reform agenda to continue to gather speed—in India as well as parts of South America, Asia, Europe, and other jurisdictions around the world. If Congress truly wishes to show leadership and protect the American national security interest, it will recognize this global movement to regulate Silicon Valley, and act commensurately by suggesting a meaningful regulatory framework itself to preempt overbearing foreign regulation that will hamper American industry. Such Congressional inquiry should start by taking a hard look at the business model underlying companies like Facebook—a business model that features the uninhibited collection and analysis of our personal data to the ends of profit maximization while holding rivals at bay through anticompetitive means—and respond to it through robust reforms to advance consumer privacy, market competition, and algorithmic transparency.

Regulated capitalism and open democratic standards of internet policy will mean that governments must ultimately renegotiate the balance of power from the corporate to the consumer, including through privacy and competition policy measures. But neither we nor the internet sector should fear such developments. The U.S. government has always prized capitalism, but when the market becomes too powerful, democratic interests must come above all else.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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