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‘Right problem, wrong solution.’ TikTok raises legitimate privacy concerns, but ban may be the wrong geopolitical move, experts say

TikTok logo reflected on some glasses in a dark room.
TikTok has entered the world politics discussion with a potential ban of the app signed by President Joe Biden on Wednesday. (Photo by Jaap Arriens / Sipa via AP Images

On Friday, Apple removed WhatsApp and Threads from its App Store in China on orders from Chinese authorities. 

On Saturday, a foreign aid package passed the U.S. House with legislation to ban the social media platform TikTok if its China-based owner doesn’t sell its stake within a year. The Senate passed the legislation Tuesday, and President Joe Biden signed it Wednesday.

Social media has officially entered world politics.  

But Northeastern University media and technology experts say banning TikTok in the United States may be the wrong geopolitical move.

“I think Congress is focusing on the right problem, with the very wrong solution,” says David Choffnes, an associate professor at Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern and the executive director and founding member of the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute. “What I’d like to see is comprehensive federal privacy legislation that protects users from all privacy threats, whether it’s from companies that are domestic or abroad.”

John Wihbey, an associate professor of media innovation and technology in the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern and a founder of Northeastern’s Internet Democracy Initiative, agrees.

“The politics around it are funny,” Wihbey says. “There are some legitimate concerns the bill tries to address, but it is doing them in a kind of haphazard way that is very much about grandstanding and theater and doesn’t address concerns about privacy that Americans have over all surveillance-based social media technologies.

“I think a more comprehensive approach to privacy would have been a better approach to this particular problem,” Wihbey continues.

On Saturday, Apple complied with Chinese authorities’ demands to remove the messaging platform WhatsApp and Threads — both owned by Meta — from its App Store in China. Chinese authorities cited national security concerns
Meanwhile, the House passed legislation Saturday as part of its foreign aid package that would ban TikTok in the United States if the popular social media platform’s China-based owner ByteDance Ltd. doesn’t sell its stake within nine months, or up to a year if a sale is in progress. Democrats and Republicans had cited national security concerns in passing an earlier version of the legislation in March, and the measure comes after years of consideration.

Wihbey says the potential U.S. ban on TikTok and the removal of WhatsApp and Threads in China is “clearly” a tit-for-tat.

“China’s refusal to allow our tech into their market is now being met with our response,” Wihbey says. 

This fuels the contentious trade relationship between the U.S. and China that has been ongoing for decades, even centuries.

But the dominance of the American tech industry arguably gave the United States the upper hand in potential disputes over social media apps. Until TikTok. 

“TikTok is the platform that has challenged American companies at their own game and won,” Wihbey says. “It’s pulling in tons of ad dollars that Meta and Google used to have and creating truly remarkable innovations within our own borders.”

Wihbey says that there are legitimate privacy concerns about TikTok — especially considering its geolocation capabilities and its sheer ubiquity on millions of Americans’ personal phones.

But there are other ways to handle these concerns — for instance, a comprehensive privacy bill or technology safety regulations similar to those passed in the United Kingdom, India and other countries. The United States, meanwhile, relies primarily on Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, legislation that was passed in 1914.

“We really have nothing to show on our side,” Wihbey says. “We’re not providing meaningful leadership to the world.”

Choffnes says “there’s no perfect solution” for what the U.S. could do to address privacy. But he cites positive aspects of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation as well as stresses the importance of not just privacy policies but money to enforce said policies.

“We’ve seen so many pieces of legislation that sound good but that don’t have the money to enforce it,” Choffnes says. It’s got to be a combination of both policy and zealous auditing that’s been missing historically.”

But both Choffnes and Wihbey said that a ban on TikTok wasn’t the right thing to do.

“Here we are, the world’s leading democracy promoting a set of values we say are important to the world, and we’re banning an app in a way that looks a little like authoritarian governments do in a knee-jerk way,” Wihbey says. 

“It authorizes, morally, an approach where people just ban stuff they don’t like based on a national security concern,” Wihbey continues. 

Choffnes agrees, adding that such a ban may, ironically, signal that the United States is willing to do exactly what it criticizes China for doing — banning apps and stifling free speech.

Choffnes also worries that a ban would make foreign companies less likely to do business in or with the United States and that a ban would continue down the path of a “splinternet” — the idea that the open, globally connected internet splinters into regional fragmented networks controlled by governments or corporations. 

“Creating these enclaves for the internet where some things are allowed or some things are not is a net loss for the world and certainly for the U.S.,” Choffnes says. 

Wihbey also worries that a ban could start a trend — what international relations scholars call a “norms cascade.”

“We could see cascades where different apps around the world are banned,” Wihbey said. “There are a whole host of countries on the fence of whether they want to be more like censors or free-speech advocates, and they are trying to take a signal.” 

A TikTok ban would certainly send a signal. 

“I worry it sets a bad precedent that’s not where the United States wants to be,” Wihbey says.

Of course, that is if we even get to that. There’s one very, very likely stop first.

“It’s almost certain to go to court,” says Jeremy Paul, a professor at Northeastern University School of Law. “TikTok’s lawyers have had a long time to think about this, and I expect lawsuits to be filed within weeks.”

Paul predicts that TikTok will challenge the legislation on free speech grounds — arguing that Congress is trying to shut down speech it doesn’t like under the guise of trying to protect users’  data from being stolen; and also trying to “piggyback” on the free speech rights of TikTok’s users.

He also predicts that ByteDance will argue that they are unfairly being singled out in violation of equal protection grounds. 

Paul doesn’t necessarily think these arguments will be successful.

He notes that the United States has long regulated ownership interests in media — for example, preventing monopolies of newspapers or radio stations. 

As for free speech…

“They’re not banning speech, they’re banning a Chinese owner of a speech vehicle,” Paul says. And he notes that the legislation makes selling data to foreign governments illegal. “We can’t regulate you for what you say, but we can for what you do.”

And while he notes that legislation targeting a specific company is “unusual” he says it is “not unprecedented.”

That being said, the Chinese government has deep pockets to fund a court case and — with this Supreme Court — who knows? 

“It’s novel enough, and there’s enough smoke there involving free speech, that you get the right judge on the right day, and anything could happen,” Paul says.