The Great TikTok Moral Panic Continues As Senators Thune, Warner Attempt A More Elaborate Ban


TikTok and Facebook application on screen Apple iPhone XRWe’ve noted for a while now how most of the outrage surrounding TikTok isn’t exactly based in factual reality.

There’s no real evidence of the Chinese using TikTok to befuddle American toddlers at scale, and the concerns about TikTok’s privacy issues are bizarrely narrow, with many of the folks proposing a ban seemingly oblivious to the broader problem: namely a lack of data broker oversight and our comical, corruption-fueled failure to pass even a basic U.S. privacy law for the internet era.

Undaunted, Senator Mark Warner and John Thune this week introduced the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act (summary and full bill text), legislation the duo claims will make Americans far more safe and secure by, among other things, eventually, maybe banning TikTok in the United States.

Unlike other proposals that weirdly hyperventilate exclusively about TikTok, Thune and Warner’s proposal claims it will empower the Department of Commerce to more broadly review, prevent, and mitigate “technology transactions” that “pose undue risk to our national security”:

“Today, the threat that everyone is talking about is TikTok, and how it could enable surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party, or facilitate the spread of malign influence campaigns in the U.S. Before TikTok, however, it was Huawei and ZTE, which threatened our nation’s telecommunications networks. And before that, it was Russia’s Kaspersky Lab, which threatened the security of government and corporate devices,” said Sen. Warner. “We need a comprehensive, risk-based approach that proactively tackles sources of potentially dangerous technology before they gain a foothold in America, so we aren’t playing Whac-A-Mole and scrambling to catch up once they’re already ubiquitous.”

Thune and Warner are applauded for at least proposing broader solutions instead of singularly freaking out about TikTok exclusively. Still, the bill’s a bit murky, and generally structured to avoid being vulnerable to a legal challenge as a bill of attainder, something likely to plague a recent House GOP legislative proposal focused on singularly banning TikTok.

That said, these efforts are all largely based on a lot of silly fearmongering that doesn’t have much basis in reality. Before he released the bill, Warner stated that one of his key motivations for it was to thwart TikTok from becoming a tool for Chinese propaganda. But again, there’s no evidence that’s actually happening, and Warner’s proposed theoreticals are just kind of silly:

 “What worries me more with TikTok is that this could be a propaganda tool,” Warner said. “The kind of videos you see would promote ideological issues.”

Warner said the app feeds Chinese kids more videos about science and engineering than American children, suggesting the app’s content recommendation system is tuned for China’s geopolitical ambitions.

That’s to say, Warner couldn’t actually come up with any examples of TikTok being used for Chinese propaganda at scale (because there aren’t any yet), so he just effectively made up a claim that the Chinese are intentionally showing Americans fewer science videos to make us stupid, which is just… silly.

Congress’ fixation on TikTok as a theoretical propaganda weapon are amusing coming from a country that’s increasingly so buried in right wing and corporate propaganda, that Americans not only routinely cheer against their own best self interests while parroting conspiracy theories, they’re increasingly likely to become radicalized and commit mass murder. Congress doesn’t seem in much of a rush, there.

The other concern about TikTok: that the Chinese will use TikTok data to spy on Americans, is obviously more valid. Yet proposals to ban TikTok — even elaborate ones like the legislation proposed by Thune and Warner — still aren’t getting at the real heart of the problem.

For decades, we’ve effectively let telecoms, app makers, OEMs, and every other company that touches the internet hoover up every last shred of consumer data. Those companies then consistently not only fail to secure this data, they sell access to it to a rotating crop of global data brokers, which in turn sell access to everything from your daily movement habits to your mental health issues.

It’s trivial for the Chinese, Russian, or American governments to purchase and abuse this data, even if you banned TikTok (and every single other Chinese app in existence) tomorrow.

But you’ll notice that the lion’s share of the Congressfolk who’ve dropped absolutely everything to hyperventilate about TikTok don’t much care about that; an attempt to regulate data brokers or implement meaningful penalties for corporations (and executives) that over-collect data and then fail to secure it might impact the revenues of U.S. companies, and you simply can’t have that.

Freaking out about TikTok is far more politically safe than addressing the bigger problem. It lets you pretend you’re being “tough on China” and genuinely care about national security and consumer privacy, even if your stubborn refusal to hold data brokers accountable or pass a privacy law undermines all the national security goals you claim to be keen on addressing.

The Great TikTok Moral Panic Continues As Senators Thune, Warner Attempt A More Elaborate Ban

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