Tim Wu Joins The Senseless Ban TikTok Parade

. . . but Tim Wu Doesn’t Clarify What The Ban Actually Accomplishes

Adapted from an article by Karl Bode, Aug 20, 2020 | Original Techdirt article here.

I’ve mentioned a few times that I don’t think the TikTok ban is coherent policy. If we genuinely want to protect U.S. consumer data from bad actors . . .

We would do the following:

  1. Fund a major expansion in election security reform.
  2. Stop kneecapping and under-funding our privacy regulators.
  3. Pass a basic privacy law for the internet era.
  4. Hold adtech, telecom, and "big tech" companies genuinely accountable for violating consumer trust. We’d shore up the integrity of our communications networks. We’d help develop and implement security standards for IOT devices.
  5. Build a coherent framework of policy that protects consumers and businesses from all threats, not just Chinese apps.

“To be abundantly clear the US Government is not doing this. It is not even anywhere close to doing this.”

Instead, we’ve spent the last month freaking out over a teen dancing app (when we weren’t busy trying to ruin encryption). Despite the growing list of big policy names that somehow think this proposal makes sense, I still don’t see the point and here is why . . .

First, the majority of the politicians pearl clutching over the teen dancing app have been utterly absent from other privacy and security debates (say like U.S. network security flaws or the abuse of location data). In fact, many of them have actively undermined efforts to shore up U.S. privacy and security, whether we’re talking about the outright refusal to fund election security improvements, or repeated opposition to even the most basic of privacy laws for the modern era. Let’s be clear: a huge swath of these folks are simply engaged in performative, xenophobic politics and couldn’t care less about U.S. privacy and security.

Second, banning TikTok doesn’t actually accomplish much of anything. It doesn’t really really thwart Chinese intelligence, which could just as easily buy this data from an absolute ocean of barely regulated international adtech middlemen, obtain it from any one of a million hacked datasets available on the dark net, or steal it from the, you know, millions upon millions of "smart" and IOT devices we attach to our home and business networks with no security and reckless abandon. In full context of the U.S., where privacy and security standards are hot garbage, the idea that banning a Chinese teen dancing app does all that much is just silly.

That said, I remain surprised by the big names in tech policy who continue to believe the Trump administration’s sloppy and bizarre TikTok ban accomplishes much of anything. Case in point: Columbia law professor Tim Wu, whose pioneering work on net neutrality and open platforms I greatly admire, penned a new piece for the New York Times arguing that a "ban on Tiktok is overdue." Effectively, Wu argues that because China routinely bans U.S. services via its great firewall, turnabout is fair play:

"For many years, laboring under the vain expectation that China, succumbing to inexorable world-historical forces, would become more like us, Western democracies have allowed China to exploit this situation. We have accepted, with only muted complaints, Chinese censorship and blocking of content from abroad while allowing Chinese companies to explore and exploit whatever markets it likes. Few foreign companies are allowed to reach Chinese citizens with ideas or services, but the world is fully open to China’s online companies."

Wu proceeds to insist that refusing to behave like China and ban their products in retaliation is somehow a sucker’s bet:

"Some think that it is a tragic mistake for the United States to violate the principles of internet openness that were pioneered in this country. But there is also such a thing as being a sucker. If China refuses to follow the rules of the open internet, why continue to give it access to internet markets around the world?"

This being 2020, I suppose I’m not surprised to see the guy who invented the idea of net neutrality advocate that the United States begin behaving more like one of the most repressive countries on the planet in regards to technological openness. The piece doesn’t spend much time (read: none whatsoever) pondering what becomes of the millions of young U.S. content creators who’ll suddenly lose their platform or be shoveled off to Facebook’s dull TikTok clone.

I don’t agree, but at least understand why retaliation is the default instinct for so many folks on this subject given China’s longstanding behavior. My problem, again, is that Wu’s piece lacks any mention of what this singular ban of a teen dancing app actually accomplishes. So we ban TikTok, then what? Do we ban every single Chinese-made "smart" television in the country (TCL has a 16.5% market share)? Every single IOT device? Every crappy Chinese-made router? All global adtech? They’re all technically the same type of threat, and if you’re freaking about one of them, shouldn’t you be advocating for a ban of all of them?

Many TikTok hyperventilators would immediately say, "yes!" We’re to ignore that American governance can’t even currently tie its own shoes, much less help its citizens obtain food, shelter, and aid during an avoidable health crisis. A ban on all domestic Chinese hardware, software, adtech, apps, and services (something you’d need to do to truly follow this retaliatory logic to its ultimate conclusion) is likely impossible. Context matters. And in full context, American security and privacy standards are a dumpster fire, TikTok is among the very least of our worries, and a much broader view of our security and privacy problems is necessary.