TikTok Ban Is Not About Privacy – Opting Out

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It’s Cronyism, and Will Make Things Worse With China

Wait, are some of us genuinely happy that Donald Trump is out there banning mobile apps? It’s not obvious on its face how the prohibition of private apps is congruent with individual liberty. Yet, after Trump’s threat to ban the app TikTok after months of fear-mongering by US intelligence agencies about possible security issues, some are rejoicing.

Note that “China banning Facebook, Google and Twitter is an unacceptable violation of its citizens’ rights,” and “Trump was right to ban TikTok to protect national security”, are contradictory positions. You have to pick one.

But let’s look at the charge that “Chinese-owned” TikTok is harvesting Americans’ data on behalf of the CCP.

The claim comes from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He was asked about it on a recent Fox News interview:

QUESTION: Would you recommend that people download that app on their phones tonight, tomorrow, anytime currently?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.

This is supported by a handful of think thanks and policy people. Klon Kitchen, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Technology Policy said in a recent podcast:

“China has laws, cybersecurity laws and national security laws, that require any Chinese company, even one operating here in the United States, to make available to the Chinese government any and all data that they collect. So any information that TikTok collects on U.S. users, under Chinese law, must be made available to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Yet it’s difficult to find hard evidence for these claims. TikTok is US-based with an American CEO. The Chinese company ByteDance owns a minority stake, which they reportedly offered to divest in response to Trump’s threat to ban it. Here’s TikTok’s statement on these concerns:

“We store all TikTok US user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.”

“We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”

We could conceive of the Chinese state bypassing American law and taking data from American TikTok users. The problem is there is no evidence for it. The best we have are the claims of White House figures.

But even if we assume that TikTok is a “state-sponsored spy network” – OK Donald, but escalating with China is also bad. I look forward to the abolition of the National Security Agency and the pardon of Edward Snowden.

This is not about supporting the abuses of the Chinese intelligence agencies. Banning TikTok is anti-freedom, and strategically poor (if the aim is to avert World War 3, that is). It’s disproportionate and unbecoming of a country that ostensibly represents liberty.

It’s also just ridiculous that the pretext for doing it is “privacy” when the US has made it clear that government doesn’t think its own citizens have a right to privacy. They just want to be the only ones who are allowed to do it.

There are no easy answers in a world where the state is so tied up with business. Trump pretended there was an easy answer in order to show his muscle. Alternatively, he could have, in addition to preventing intelligence and military personnel from using TikTok, strengthened privacy legislation, except that may have interfered with US-based companies, and even the US’ own spying.

Trump seemed to suggest the ban wasn’t primarily based on privacy, but to effectively teach China a lesson for a litany of perceived ills, like “intellectual property theft” and presumably starting the coronavirus.

The idea that the US was sitting there minding its own business until imperialist China came along that forced it into drastic measures is willfully naive. People have to recognize that there’s a cold war on, with two enemies of liberty. Two authoritarian states will restrict individual freedoms as much as they can get away with to gain ascendancy. The big losers are both the American and Chinese people. Trump is not our friend here – he’s at minimum a lackey for neocons who are still at work in the American deep state.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.