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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: TikTok ban misdirects outrage on data abuse

DTH Photo Illustration. A student watches TikTok on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023.

Last month, the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce grilled TikTok’s Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew during a hearing about the platform’s relationship with the Chinese government. This ongoing bipartisan battle against the app highlights how social media companies can abuse users’ data rights – even if TikTok is an undue, yet convenient scapegoat. 

In 2020, former President Donald Trump ordered a ban on new downloads of TikTok in the name of national security, as Chinese firm ByteDance owns the app. President Joe Biden revoked the executive order, signaling that his administration would avoid conflicts with the company. 

Instead, conversations of a potential ban returned due to the current administration’s review of apps owned and designed by “foreign adversaries,” a designation China has been categorized under. Rather than ordering an outright ban, federal officials demanded that the app be sold. 

Really, the government’s fight is with China, who they fear will use the company to manipulate and spy on the millions of Americans who use TikTok every day. 

What Republican and Democratic lawmakers are concerned with is the inappropriate use of data, but targeting TikTok misdirects their frustration, thinly cloaking it in nationalism and xenophobia. Rebuking TikTok for the dangers of their data practices fails to acknowledge the practices of American companies — a real pot and kettle situation.

Representatives challenged TikTok’s data collection, questioning how the Chinese government can use personal user information. During the hearing, Chew was chastised over child safety and mental health, misinformation and manipulative advertising. 

These anxieties focus on data practices also implemented in American companies. When American companies access and utilize user data, it’s innovative and efficient, but when another country competes at the same scale, it’s an imminent threat to national and user safety. 

The irony of this case is how glorified and normalized the use of data is when American-owned companies are in control. 

Last year, the Transportation Security Administration began testing the use of facial recognition software for passenger identification. I recently came back from a trip to the U.K. and, upon my arrival in Chicago, faced this kind of biometric technology at U.S. Customs (pun intended). The banners draped in the hallway leading to the scanners promoted biometrics as more “efficient” and “safe.” Those same flyers did not detail how the data collected would be stored or used in other contexts.

Every year since 2016, Spotify releases its Spotify Wrapped list, a marketing campaign that visualizes user data. They categorize users’ listening habits by genre, artist and frequency. It crafts personality types and applauds users for being in the top percentage of listeners for artists. If you don’t have Spotify, you’ll still see the campaign across social media as users post their listening metrics fashioned as funky and colorful graphics. 

Other American social media companies like Meta and Google handle the data of Americans and millions of global users who use their platforms and services. We are so accustomed to big companies taking our data that it has become second nature. Users trade personal data for free access to social media platforms like Instagram or Twitter, services like email and navigation, and other corners of the internet. Companies take this data and sell it to advertisers who feed this information back to us through advertisements. 

This is the formula we know.

It seems that the only reason the House committee is invested in this format now is to protect their own interests rather than for the good of users’ data privacy. 

If a Chinese company is controlled by Chinese national interests, it’s fair to say that American ones are ruled by American interests. 

Our country is not perfect by any means. Issues like gun control (which seem to be of far less concern to lawmakers), rampant homophobia and transphobia, inflation, cost of living, racism and police brutality shape our political landscape. Part of my research as a Ph.D. candidate studying social media platforms is how our politics, in turn, shape technology. 

And this technology isn’t perfect either. The infamous Cambridge Analytica controversy included private data of Facebook users being used to build voter profiles and create political advertising used for the Trump campaign. This was a clear misuse of user data and privacy and landed Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg in the same hot seat that Chew is in now. 

The United States lags behind other countries in protecting data privacy. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation implemented laws that demand company transparency around data use and targeted advertisements. This puts some power back in the hands of users and their right to control their personal data. The consequences for noncompliance may include fines of up to 10 million Euros or two percent of the company's annual revenue. 

Because it could lead to more regulation for American companies, this level of protection is not at the forefront of this inquiry. A move in that direction could set an example for what government officials expect from TikTok or whatever other companies come on their radar. 

It’s unclear how far the restrictions on TikTok will go in the next few weeks or months and what changes the company will make to retain the government’s trust. What is clear is that America is throwing stones from a house made of glass. 


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