Ticking Down to Zero: TikTok, WeChat, and the Politics of Posturing

We had an entirely different column written, but part two of our deep dive into broadband access can wait until next week.

Because something bigger happened.

WeChat and TikTok will be banned in U.S. app stores beginning Sunday, September 20. As of Sunday, distribution or maintenance of WeChat and TikTok on an app store will be prohibited.

And as of this writing, neither Apple nor Google have commented, but...what are they going to say? They have no choice at the moment but to comply.

The ban doesn’t mean the versions on your phone are going anywhere, but it does mean you won’t have access to further updates.

Now settle in and let us tell you why this matters.

Ignore the Man Behind The Curtain

One of the main arguments for TikTok being a danger is that it’s a black box social algorithm. That means its recommendations to you aren't based on who you’re following, but just on what they think you’d like. And it is a black box algorithm from a country that is pretty transparent about its feelings on liberal democracy.

Spoiler: They don’t dig it.

China trying to limit what information people can disseminate isn’t new. The Chinese government has already interfered with TikTok content (NBA things in Hong Kong, for instance) and TikTok parent company ByteDance actually removed the app from the Hong Kong market after the government increased its surveillance demands.

You’ll hear no argument from us that it has the capability and the mechanism to, say, feed users the information it chooses. (Whether that information is true or not.)

And to then, say, influence an election. (Which is coming up in a mere 46 days.)

And then there’s the data-mining. TikTok’s terms of service tell you it’s gathering your country location, Internet address, and device type. Completely standard. With additional permissions, it will also record your exact location, your phone’s contacts, your age, and your phone number.

Part of the worry goes back to that black box problem we talked about above. TikTok uses some fairly sophisticated technical measures to encode its activity, meaning we can’t really see what they’re doing with that data.

In March of this year, when it was found that the app was accessing iPhone clipboards while it ran in the background, ByteDance updated its code to correct the problem. And in 2019, after TikTok paid $5.7 million to the FTC for violations of America’s children’s privacy law by its previous owner, they updated it, too.

So it’s not a great app for data privacy. Then again, neither is Words With friends, but Wilbur Ross hasn’t mentioned it.

Is it Dangerous?

Intrepid readers will notice that nowhere in the above mini-treatise on data security is there any mention of data being leaked to the Chinese government, or of the Chinese government at all.

Because as far as anyone knows, it hasn’t happened.

It just...could.

Look, whatever your concerns about data security and targeted disinformation on TikTok and WeChat, there is no evidence that the apps have been used in a way that threatens the security of our nation.

And if the capability and mechanism to leak data or influence an election are sufficient cause for the removal of our rights to expression, we eagerly await the ban on Facebook.

So, What’s the Deal?

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Tulsa. It’s just speculation, of course, but Trump hasn’t been exactly thrilled since TikTok teens requested almost a million tickets to his Oklahoma rally. As a joke.

The children truly are our future.

Add to that Trump’s persistent, deeply xenophibic obsession with blaming China for COVID-19, and the persistent, deeply funny obsession TikTok has with making fun of him…well.

This is a sad game of tit-for-tat (for tik for tok) with a hostile government, and it is clear overreach.

And now we’re ordering Google/Apple to remove TikTok. China, on the other hand, built an entire system to filter out every single network call the app could make. So you see, we're not concerned enough to actually block the supposed harm; we just stomp and shout and shake them down for money and write regulations to interrupt business.

Our attempts at authoritarianism (at least in this case) are performative.

We play thug and call it national security.

It Doesn't Have to be Serious to be Important

Don't give in to the glib fiction that because these are entertainment apps they don’t matter. Channels of communication and expression are being closed under the guise of “safety,” and we’re not demanding the receipts to prove they’re dangerous.

There is no level of security that is worth more than the fullness of our liberty.

#Politics #security #TikTok #WeChat