When it comes to the TikTok ban debate, hypocrisy abounds

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TikTok is under attack on many fronts these days. Earlier this week, the White House gave federal agencies 30 days to delete the Chinese social media app from government-issued devices, and China hit back at EU lawmakers for introducing similar rules. “Very disappointed that EU institutions impose restrictions on the use of TikTok on staff devices,” sighed Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the EU, via Twitter.

Meanwhile, Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee pushed through a piece of legislation called the Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries (DATA) Act. This would allow the president to entirely ban a foreign-owned app such as TikTok without having to wait for the conclusion of a lengthy national-security review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.—which has been scrutinizing TikTok for years, without any results.

Citing fears over Chinese surveillance, committee chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said the bill was needed because TikTok is “too dangerous to be on our phones as members of Congress…[and] too dangerous to be on our children’s phones.” 

Civil liberties activists said the bill was “vague and overbroad” and would violate the First Amendment. TikTok itself referred to the same principles, with spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter telling Politico the ByteDance-owned operation was “disappointed to see this rushed piece of legislation move forward, despite its considerable negative impact on the free speech rights of millions of Americans who use and love TikTok.” 

These Western bans and bans-to-be may indeed be justified—ByteDance has consistently denied sharing TikTok user data with Beijing, and there is no solid evidence showing it has, but a 2017 Chinese law does require it to do so if compelled. That said, the whole debate is suffused with hypocrisy.

It’s not just that, as this column has noted before, TikTok’s data grabs and addiction-forming nature are standard practice in Silicon Valley. On matters of national security, U.S. Big Tech is under its own government’s thumb—companies like Meta and Alphabet have to secretly comply with U.S. intelligence requests for foreigners’ personal data. That’s why the EU can’t come up with a long-lasting arrangement for letting U.S. companies import Europeans’ data, and why Facebook and Instagram may soon have to withdraw from the European market. (The regulators involved in that case are also probing TikTok over its Chinese data transfers, so this isn’t just an anti-U.S. matter.)

China, of course, is also being massively hypocritical. Ambassador Fu’s lamentation would be a lot more convincing if it weren’t for the fact that China bans Twitter—the platform he used to complain—as well as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and a host of other U.S. services. Heck, China doesn’t even have TikTok; it has Douyin, TikTok’s more heavily censored sister app.

The sanctimony on all sides can’t hide the fact that this is a raw geopolitical argument. If U.S. lawmakers are so concerned about TikTok’s dangers, they could deal with the problem by enacting a strong federal privacy law affecting TikTok and everyone else. And if China is so upset about Western restrictions on TikTok “unreasonably suppressing other countries’ companies on the grounds of national security”—the words of Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning—it could stop doing precisely the same thing itself.

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David Meyer

Data Sheet’s daily news section was written and curated by Andrea Guzman. 


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