Gordon Campbell on the banning of Tik Tok

2701122fedad6d2e6314For a serial offender like Stuart Nash, it was inevitable that another skeleton would emerge from his closet, and end his ministerial career. This one though, was a whopper. Previously, Nash had tried to tell the Police how to do their job. He had also tried to tell the courts how to do their job. He had rung up immigration officials to query whether they were doing right by someone in his electorate. He was a disaster zone.

But this time… Let’s just say that you should never, ever rat on your mates behind their backs. Yet here we are. In 2020, it seems that Nash emailed a few of his cobbers (and a couple of his donors) in the commercial property sector, about the nature of confidential Cabinet discussions to do with issues in which they had a financial interest. Furthermore, Nash let them know that he personally disagreed with the decision that his Cabinet colleagues had reached. So much for Cabinet collective responsibility and caucus confidentiality.

Given his current pariah status, this has to raise questions about how effectively he can continue to represent the people in his electorate. His local electorate must be having second thoughts about whether they want Nash as their candidate in October. Few tears will be being shed over a self-destruction that seems to have been born of equal shares of arrogance and recklessness.

Banning… Tik Tok?

In a rare display of political unity, Democrats and Republicans both seem intent on imposing a nationwide ban on the globally beloved Tik Tok app. Why? Mainly because Tik Tok is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance, which supposedly means there is nothing to stop the personal data of Tik Tok’s 150 million American users being harvested by ByteDance and forwarded to Communist Party HQ in Beijing.

There is no evidence to show this has ever happened. Similarly, with regard to the Chinese tech firm Huawei, there was never any evidence that Huawei was installing covert surveillance gear, or eavesdropping on Westerners to better serve its Communist masters, or leaving back doors open for Chinese hackers. It was enough that conceivably such things might happen, right? Now, suddenly, the threat posed by Tiktok is so massive that this clear and present danger can only be met by imposing a total ban.

Patriots, not a day goes by that Tik Tok is not bewitching the flower of America’s youth with advice on eyeliner, on making out, on drinking to excess, on ways to make cool jewellery, and on how to manage your anxiety levels… While also offering several good reasons why you should cut down your intake of almond milk. From there, it is clearly only a short step to the dismantling of capitalism.

But here’s the thing. If data privacy is the main justification for a Tik Tok ban, then consider this. According to the non-profit Brennan Centre for policy studies, the following US agencies have access to the social media histories of Americans, for purposes of monitoring, targeting and information collection. The big three, as the Brennan Centre indicates, are the US Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the US State Department. But wait, there’s more:

Other federal agencies with the power to monitor social media activity include the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Postal Service, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Not only can those agencies access the social media histories of users of Facebook, Google etc. They can also enter into data sharing joint ventures with private companies who can also access that data. The US really is the Wild West when it comes to data privacy. As others have pointed out:

In the name of fighting terrorism, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) routinely review the social media accounts of people with no prior criminal activity. These investigations can be initiated even when there is no factual basis for believing someone has committed a crime.

Meaning: If maintaining data privacy truly is the overriding concern here, then focusing solely on Tik Tok seems to be wilfully short-sighted. A few days ago, that’s why US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC) posted – on Tik Tok ! – her opposition to a nationwide Tik Tok ban. Instead, AOC supports the need for regulation to protect data privacy on all social media platforms, roughly along the lines of the European Community’s General Data Protection Regulation. AOC’s three minute Tik Tok video can be accessed here. The full text of the GDPR is here.

Planning for banning

Leave aside for a moment the troublesome fact that the First Amendment of the US Constitution forbids Big Government from carrying out a curtailment of free speech on the scale envisaged with respect to Tik Tok.

The recent circus of Congressional hearings on the alleged threat posed by Tik Tok – in which ByteDance’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew was grilled for several hours – provided an opportunity for Chew’s interrogators to flex their muscles and show how tough they are on China. The level of knowledge on display was, shall we say, variable. To show the harms that Tik Tok could wreak. one Congressman screened a “suicide“ instruction video that turned out to be a clip from the fictional US HBO television show The Bear. Despite these antics, the hostility to Tik Tok has to be taken seriously. Belatedly, ByteDance has realised that this threat to its US business operations is real, no matter how flimsy the grounds for it may be.

Because of the concerns about the data privacy of its US users, ByreDance has offered Congress – and the Biden administration – a compromise solution, known as Project Texas. ByteDance has shown a willingness to spend $1.5 billion on Project Texas to help to allay the concerns being expressed by the United States. As Vox News has described it:

[Project Texas] intends to mitigate national security concerns as much as possible by keeping all US user data in the country’s borders on servers owned by an American company, Oracle. There would also be some third-party oversight on both the access to data and algorithmic recommendations.

That last point alone is quite a concession with regard to ByteDance’s commercially valuable property, given that Tiktok’s user-sensitive algorithm is one of the keys to its success. Moreover, the US government – in the form of the inter-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States – would have an added oversight role to do with the content and operations of Project Texas. Besides, Larry Ellison’s US company Oracle would stand to make a ton of money from its own oversight role in the project, which would locate the US user data in Oracle Cloud.

At the Congressional hearings though, US politicians showed scant interest in Project Texas, and little knowledge of how far it might go in meeting their supposed concerns. Towards the end of the hearings, Bytedance CEO Chew was moved to observe: “I haven’t heard a good reason why it doesn’t work. ”

About Project Texas…

However, there have been some expert critical reviews of Project Texas, such as this recent article by Yael Roth. While Project Texas might create a silo for the personal social media data of Americans, Roth maintains, Tik Tok’s global reach would create risks at the entry/exit points for international digital communications as they enter and leave the United States.

Moreover, Roth maintains, it is only by being able to study and compare US and international data flows that the patterns crucial to the detection of botnets and malware can be sheeted home to the countries running those operations. For those who want to keep up with the jargon of cyber defence, the relevant term here is “centralised telemetry.” Supposedly, only advanced CT analysis can detect the patterns in a mass of online social media traffic that points, say, to a single Russian troll farm as being the origin point. Such procedures require access to masses of global data. By silo-ing the US data, Roth therefore concludes, this could conceivably make the US less safe.

Clearly, this kind of thinking puts ByteDance in a sure-fire lose/lose situation. If CEO Chew does nothing, he is seen to be a pliant tool of Beijing. – Yet if he spends $1.5 billion on trying to insulate US privacy data from the clutches of Beijing, he is just as likely to be accused of cleverly scheming to shield the operations of Chinese botnets from the threat of CT analysis. As Slate magazine and Vox News both noted, there was no way that Chew could win when he fronted up to Congress last week.

Footnote: The posturing aside, will the US actually follow through and enact a nationwide ban on TikTok? There is not only bi-partisan but bicameral support (ie, in the lower House and the Senate) for such a ban – even though to those living in the outside world, the whole episode looks like a moral panic that’s being driven by xenophobia about all things Chinese. What the US has in mind looks a lot like the genetic fallacy.

Right now, Congress is freaking out at the thought that the Chinese have managed to get a data capture tool embedded on gazillions of American smartphones. Yet as indicated above, if a total Tik Tok ban eventuates, it would be open to legal challenges based on the First Amendment. Such challenges would require the US to produce in court some evidence that “national security” is at risk from Tik Tok, to a level where only a total ban is the only proportionate response. Good luck with that.

Footnote Two: To repeat: if data privacy is the main issue, Tik Tok is hardly the only social media platform posing a potential threat to ordinary Americans. That is AOC’s point. The solution should therefore entail regulatory powers being applied fairly and equally to all players, and not just as a selective ban on only one of them. Tik Tok is only one piece on the chess board of global digital communications. The US needs to learn how to play the game better, and not just proceed to up-end the chess board in spite. In years gone by, the US used to be so much better at finding ways to protect its popular cultural empire.

At some point, other political realities may also begin to dawn on the Biden administration. For example: to win in 2024, the Democrats will need to turn out the youth vote. Long ago, Facebook became a forum only for old people. Where better to reach young voters than on Tik Tok, in a voyeur drive spearheaded by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez?

Talkin’ at Fred

Luckily, back when he wrote “Everybody’s Talkin” in the mid 1960s, Fred Neil (1936-2001) had no idea what social media would come to feel like. Everybody’s talkin at ya, indeed.

Even better, here’s Neil’s great song about feeling grateful for life, even though the rainy days are inevitable: