I’ve come around to support a total ban on TikTok

I’ve come around to support a total ban on TikTok for several reasons.

TikTok isn’t just one problem for American government and society; it is several different ones, all thrown together.

If you don’t think that TikTok has done anything bad enough to warrant a total ban — the national-security implications, the ties to the Chinese military’s surveillance programs, the data-privacy violations, the company’s constant lying about the privacy violations, the spying on journalists, the apologetics for ongoing genocide, running “the digital equivalent of going down the street to a strip club filled with 15-year-olds,” the harmful effects on teen girls’ mental health, the algorithm steering teenagers towards explicit and inappropriate material . . . what would TikTok have to do in order for you to believe it deserved a ban? Or is there nothing that the company could do that would make you believe the app should be banned in the U.S.?

Over the course of one Republican administration and one Democratic administration, the U.S. government has communicated its concerns to TikTok many, many times in many, many ways. TikTok has basically given the U.S. government the finger and offered implausible denials of wrongdoing. TikTok has ignored many opportunities to avert, defuse, or alleviate this confrontation. Some TikTok critics will conclude the company has refused to cooperate on these issues because spying on Americans while simultaneously deluging them with depravity is the whole purpose of the app.

The usual free-market consequence of learning that their favorite viral-dance-craze app is basically spyware from the Chinese government would be for consumers to realize how harmful the app is, and delete it, and find some other roughly equivalent app to use. But over time, TikTok has grown more popular among Americans in spite of the revelations about its ties to the Chinese government, not less popular.

“Let the buyer beware” is just not going to be sufficient in this situation. Heck, we can’t even get a bunch of Democratic members of Congress to stop using TikTok, even after it was banned from government devices.

We’re dealing with at least two demographics that are notoriously irresponsible, careless, and barely capable of understanding the long-term consequences of their actions: teenagers and Democratic members of Congress. A huge portion of the TikTok usership is teenagers, and teenagers, despite their frequent protests, are not adults who can make their own decisions in the eyes of the law or the Constitution. At minimum, a ban on users under age 18 is long overdue.

TikTok calls itself “The Last Sunny Corner on the Internet.” But in reality, the app, which claims 150 million Americans among its 1 billion global users, is more than a harmless diversion for jokes and dance videos. It’s a powerful weapon of the Chinese Communist Party.

When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies on Capitol Hill this week, expect him to deny that, but the truth is undeniable.

Both Democrats and Republicans view the Chinese Communist Party as America’s foremost national security threat. They recognize the CCP is playing the long haul and its endgame is global domination. To achieve its mission, Beijing is using a four-dimensional strategy of military, economic, diplomatic and cultural aggression with technology as its core. That includes TikTok.

No matter how strenuously Chew pleads independence from the Chinese government, he and his company are bound by China’s National Intelligence Law, which compels every Chinese citizen and company to surrender all data to the Chinese Communist Party upon request and perform surveillance activities on behalf of the CCP. Chew has no choice in the matter. Neither do TikTok’s Chinese employees. 

This is not a hypothetical matter. A recent BuzzFeed report, citing leaked audio from 80 internal TikTok meetings, revealed that “Everything is seen in China.” TikTok tracks users’ keystrokes to capture their personal data, such as credit card information, passwords, and location. In fact, TikTok is being used by the Chinese government to track reporters’ and whistleblowers’ physical movements in an attempt to intimidate them.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the CCP controls TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, “allows them [Chinese Communist Party] to manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations.” In fact, the Chinese version of TikTok is different from the American version. In China, it serves up educational content. Here, it serves up pro-Beijing propaganda and censors any criticism of the CCP. Just try and search for “Uyghur genocide” videos.

Anything short of a total ban won’t work. Proposals, such as storing Americans’ data collected by TikTok in the United States, are unrealistic. A determined adversary with no regard for the rule of law, like the CCP, will not be deterred by legalistic technicalities. 

Beijing will undoubtedly exert leverage over TikTok’s Chinese developers to place a backdoor in the millions of lines of code that Chinese hackers can exploit later to access U.S. data. Frequent software updates make it nearly impossible to track down these backdoors. They are much harder to find than a spy balloon. 

TikTok is not just fun and games. It's a weapon in the 21st-century contest between freedom and authoritarianism, and technology must advance freedom.
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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