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A bunch of states and now Congress are seeking to ban government employees from using TikTok. Let’s get real.
Those bans hardly ban anything.
Many American politicians are grandstanding over TikTok for your attention.
The same U.S. officials saying that TikTok is a gateway to Chinese spying and manipulation have done almost nothing real about that risk.
So far, people with power in the United States haven’t been willing to actually block Americans from using TikTok, even as new reporting revealed that TikTok employees improperly accessed data on Americans.
But people in power also haven’t followed through on TikTok restrictions that could protect Americans.
If you love TikTok, you should know that eventually the app could be kicked out of the United States and you might lose access. Even if that never happens, you deserve real action and not political hot air on potential technology abuses — including those from companies in China.
There are proposed national security restrictions of TikTok that could be promising. But they’re stuck.
What exists right now may be the worst of two worlds: TikTok is neither banned nor controlled.
TikTok is owned by a Chinese internet giant, ByteDance. With more than 1 billion users globally, TikTok is (arguably) the first wildly popular app in the United States that comes from a Chinese company. U.S. elected officials and most Americans don’t trust China.
U.S. officials have said that because businesses in China are not truly independent from the government in Beijing, Chinese Communist Party officials might force TikTok to hand over data it has collected on American users, or TikTok might use the app to promote Chinese propaganda or censor material that Beijing doesn’t like.
TikTok says that U.S. officials have provided little evidence of TikTok being a patsy of Beijing.
There are examples of Chinese online information campaigns that have tried to twist your beliefs. And on Thursday, ByteDance said it had fired four employees after an internal investigation found they had accessed data on two journalists and other U.S. users while attempting to track down a company leak. (Forbes has more details on this.)
The real and perceived concerns about TikTok were among the reasons that then-President Donald Trump ordered TikTok banished from the United States in 2020. He backtracked and TikTok struck a deal with American companies to reduce the risk of Chinese intrusion or sabotage.
Then the whole thing fell apart. Since then, TikTok has continued to operate in the United States relatively unchanged.
What have been called bans of TikTok in at least 19 states, by the U.S. armed forces and now in a proposal in the government funding bill don’t do very much
In practice, the policies restrict government employees in those jurisdictions — schoolteachers, park rangers or Justice Department lawyers — from downloading TikTok on phones issued by their employers. Some public colleges have said they’ll restrict people from using TikTok on their WiFi networks.
Security experts say it’s sensible to limit what government workers can do on government-issued phones. Mostly, though, these government TikTok restrictions are symbolic.
Workers and soldiers often just download and use TikTok on personal devices. Some members of Congress are TikTok regulars, too. College kids can use TikTok on cell networks. And the rest of us are free to TikTok with abandon.
The idea to formally block TikTok from the United States remains alive. It is likely to gain new life after ByteDance acknowledged it caught a few employees snooping on Americans.
But so far, elected leaders have been unwilling to impose a ban, which risks backlash from TikTok fans and will likely run into First Amendment legal challenges.
So here we are. Stuck.
Behind the scenes, TikTok and a secret U.S. committee that oversees foreign companies have been working on a middle ground since 2019. My colleague Drew Harwell has done impeccable reporting on the negotiations, and there are some interesting but untested and imperfect ideas in there.
Among the proposals, Drew reported this week, is an arrangement for U.S. authorities to have veto power over appointments of top TikTok executives and for a three-member board to oversee the company. To try to make sure what you see in the app isn’t influenced by China’s government, the negotiated arrangement proposes independent audits of TikTok’s systems that tailor videos to people’s interests or censor material.
“If you believe TikTok is an existential threat to America, this is a solution,” said Samm Sacks, a cyber policy specialist with the New America think tank.
But Drew reported that those TikTok policy proposals are in limbo. Banning TikTok has been politically unpalatable so far, but any compromise on TikTok may be, too.
If U.S. officials are concerned about protecting our data, they could put their weight behind the negotiated restrictions on TikTok. And they could use the TikTok negotiations as a road map for oversight of all apps from China and other authoritarian countries.
Law makers could also get tougher on cyberattacks from China. They could pass a national privacy law that would force TikTok — and Meta, Google and all companies that suck up morsels of your information — to collect less of it.
Elected leaders could push through proposed legislation that would require algorithm-dependent internet companies like TikTok and YouTube to be more transparent about their inner workings.
Not everyone agrees that restricting TikTok is good enough. Nothing can completely remove the potential risk of Chinese sabotage or snooping. But the unwillingness thus far to either ban or restrict TikTok leaves Americans no better protected than we were two years ago.
If you love TikTok but you’re also worried about TikTok, here’s one change you can make: Don’t share your contacts with TikTok.
Repeatedly and annoyingly, TikTok will ask you to hand over the contact list on your phone or link to your Facebook account. The information can be revealing about you in ways you don’t imagine. Here’s how to shut it off.
➦ In the TikTok app, click on your profile settings, which you can find by tapping the three lines at the top right corner.
➦ Select Privacy → Sync contacts and Facebook friends.
➦ Make sure both toggles are off and gray. (Green means it is on.)
And read more from Heather Kelly on the TikTok settings to change right now.
Brag about YOUR one tiny win! Tell us about an app, gadget, or tech trick that made your day a little better. We might feature your advice in a future edition of The Tech Friend.
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