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China-Focused TikTok Scrutiny Ignores Similar Privacy Concerns in US-Owned Apps

The RESTRICT Act would allow the federal government to potentially ban technology from countries like China.

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced the RESTRICT Act, which would allow the federal government to potentially ban technology from countries the U.S. considers to be adversaries, including China. Last Thursday, congressmembers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew during a five-hour hearing on the app’s ties to the Chinese government, its data practices and its effects on children’s mental health. Critics say this China-focused scrutiny largely ignores similar privacy concerns over the use of U.S.-owned apps and social media platforms. We hear more from Julia Angwin, an investigative journalist and contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, whose latest guest essay is titled “How to Fix the TikTok Problem.”

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As a growing number of governments worldwide enact new limits on social media apps, we look now at bipartisan calls at home to ban one specific app here in the United States: the Chinese-owned TikTok. Last Thursday, congressmembers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew during a five-hour hearing on the app’s ties to the Chinese government, data practices, and its effects on children’s mental health. This is Democratic Florida Congressmember Darren Soto questioning Chew.

REP. DARREN SOTO: So, Mr. Chew, would TikTok be prepared to divest from ByteDance and Chinese Communist Party ties if the Department of Treasury instructed you all to do so?

SHOU ZI CHEW: Congressman, I said in my opening statement I think we are — need to address the problem of privacy. I agree with you. I don’t think ownership is the issue here. With a lot of respect, American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, just one example.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced the RESTRICT Act, which stands for Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats That Risk Information, Communications, Technology Act, which would allow the federal government to potentially ban technology from countries the U.S. considers to be adversaries, including China. Meanwhile, Democratic Congressmember Jamaal Bowman of New York has been a leading opponent of a TikTok ban.

REP. JAMAAL BOWMAN: So, we’re talking about free speech for everyday Americans. We’re talking about small business owners who use TikTok to grow their business. And my question is — and we’re going to pivot to the other part of the conversation: Why the hysteria and the panic and the targeting of TikTok? As we know, Republicans, in particular, have been sounding the alarm, creating a Red Scare around China.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Bowman has been joined by New York Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who laid out her concerns in a video she posted on TikTok after opening her first account on the app.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Usually, when the United States is proposing a very major move that has something to do with significant risk to national security, one of the first things that happens is that Congress receives a classified briefing. And I can tell you that Congress has not received a classified briefing around the allegations of national security risks regarding TikTok. So, why would we be proposing a ban regarding such a significant issue without being clued in on this at all? It just doesn’t feel right to me.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in New York by Julia Angwin, investigative journalist, formerly with ProPublica, contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, where her latest guest essay is headlined “How to Fix the TikTok Problem.” We last spoke to her in 2014 about her book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.

Julia, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. I mean, it was amazing to see this absolute bipartisan almost consensus in the particular hearing that the CEO of TikTok was being questioned at, being grilled and demanding that TikTok be sold to a U.S. company in order for it to be saved. Talk about what Bowman said, what AOC has said, and what you think are the major concerns here.

JULIA ANGWIN: Thank you so much for having me on. It’s great to be here.

And I have to say, it was amazing to watch Congress finally taking privacy seriously — but only for one app, right? So, I have been writing about privacy issues; I published my book almost a decade ago. And people have been trying to get Congress to pass a federal privacy law that would protect our data on all of our apps, in all of the different ways that we are mediated by technology. And we’re one of the only Western nations that has not passed such a bill. And so, now we have, of course, this frenzy around TikTok and this idea that they are the ones who we really need to be protected against. And the reality is, there’s really nothing that TikTok is accused of that the other social media platforms haven’t done, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And isn’t there also the issue of the question of governments being able to use these apps for their own ends? I would assume that anything that China can do — the Chinese government can do with TikTok, the U.S. government can do with the American social media apps that are spread around the world.

JULIA ANGWIN: I mean, it’s a really good point that all of these social media platforms can and have been manipulated and censored by governments, right? And so, most recently, the most recent example we’ve seen of this, actually, was that there’s a Twitter employee who recently was just convicted of spying on Saudi dissidents on behalf of the Saudi government. And so, he used his access as an employee in order to spy on government — on Twitter users. And, you know, Google over the years has said that they have dismissed more than a dozen employees for misusing data about Google users. And so, we have seen that this kind of thing can happen at all of the platforms.

It’s also true that you don’t have to own a platform in order to misuse it, right? So, in the 2016 election, we know that Facebook was basically used by Russian propagandists to spread misinformation. We know that Facebook’s platform was used by the Myanmar government to spread lies and hate against the Rohingyas, which then led to a genocide. We know that Facebook’s platform was used by people organizing the Capitol insurrection on January 6th and that Facebook didn’t stop that. And so, we know these platforms can be misused. And there’s no question that China could also, of course, try to misuse the TikTok platform.

But what’s interesting is that TikTok has proposed a plan that would wall off U.S. data from China’s access. It basically has said to the government, “We would store all of our data about U.S. users at Oracle, a U.S. company, and we would actually submit to oversight by the Treasury-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.” So, essentially, that committee would be able to inspect their algorithm to see if they’re promoting disinformation from China or any other state, and also would be able to inspect to make sure that the data about U.S. people is not being transmitted back to China. That’s a level of control and state control over an app that we haven’t seen before, and also is way more oversight than any of the other social media platforms have been exposed to.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering the broader implications of Congress trying to ban TikTok, especially in view of the fact that the United States, for the last 40, 50 years, has been the main proponent of globalization, of breaking down barriers between countries and letting companies extend their reach and their trade. I’m wondering — for instance, the similar battle that happened over Huawei and 5G, and the spread of 5G around the world, with the United States, instead of welcoming greater intercourse between countries, was actually seeking to shut down the ability of a Chinese company to market 5G technology around the world. What’s this going to do to the potential for individual countries now to begin to close their borders to trade and commerce in the digital age?

JULIA ANGWIN: I mean, this is a really good point, right? So, if we put — the proposals on the table are, A, to put TikTok under state control, to ban it or to force a sale. All three of those things are things that I think the U.S. government would really be mad about if some other country tried to do to one of our companies, right?

Right now, already, if you think about the social media platforms and how they behave around the world, although we often like to be mad at them for various reasons — and we have lots of reasons to be mad often — the reality is that they are being asked in most countries to act as government censors, right? So, like in India, there have been huge pressure on the tech platforms to do censorship on behalf of the government. And some of that censorship, the companies have argued, is illegal. Right? And so, they have — they are actually out there fighting for their users to have free expression. And that’s true in a lot of countries. These companies actually spend a lot of time fighting with the governments to try to make sure their platforms can be a place where everyone has a voice.

And so, for the U.S. to suddenly say, “OK, we want to support freedom of expression around the world” — right? We do that not only through our private companies but through our foreign diplomacy and our USAID, etc. We now actually don’t want it at home, right? We’re going to actually basically censor TikTok here. It makes it really hard for us to justify supporting freedom of expression around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask you about other parts of the RESTRICT Act, which is co-sponsored — I mean, all of this is bipartisan, in a time when the Congress couldn’t be more partisan. But on going after China on this, you’ve got Senator Thune, and you’ve got Senator Warner, and, of course, others that are co-sponsoring. So, we know that they want TikTok to be sold to a U.S. company, but can you talk about other aspects of RESTRICT Act? Is it true you could face a million-dollar fine if you access TikTok? And also, what does this say about restricting VPNs? And explain what they are.

JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah. So, the RESTRICT Act is basically this bipartisan bill that has come about because the White House, apparently, believes that they don’t actually have the legal authority to ban TikTok. So, they were floating this ban and then realized that they needed the legal authority. So this bill, as far as I understand it, is actually meant to give them that legal authority that they don’t feel like they have right now. And so, it empowers the Commerce Department to do some evaluations of different apps and to see what the risks are, and then to take different measures to counteract them, including a ban.

And so, I think that the fact that it’s bipartisan-supported is a sign of how united Congress is right now. I mean, I’ve never seen the Dems and Republicans on the same side so aggressively as on this particular issue. And it really is interesting, because they’re not united on privacy as a larger issue, right? Like, the privacy bills have not moved, but this issue, which is more, I think, a China issue than a privacy issue — right? The reality is the reason they’re united is because everyone sees political capital in uniting to fight against the “China threat.” Right?

Now, you asked me about VPNs. VPNs are virtual private networks, so, basically, it’s something you would put on your phone in order to route around your internet provider. It’s often used in places, like China, where the government is censoring internet traffic, and it’s a way to try to circumvent that censorship. And so, it’s interesting that you would think of restricting that, when in fact that’s something we tend to export to other nations in order to promote freedom of expression.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk a little about the difference in approach to dealing with social media and technology by the European Union versus what kinds of legislation that Congress is considering?

JULIA ANGWIN: Yeah. I mean, that’s such a great question. The EU has been just years and years ahead of the United States in terms of taking the threats from these platforms seriously and addressing them thoughtfully. So, for instance, they passed a comprehensive privacy law back in 2018 that laid out, you know, basic standards for how data should be treated, what kind of rights users have over their data.

And then, this year, actually, new laws are coming into place to regulate the algorithms. So, it’s the first time that algorithms are going to be regulated. These social media companies that are above a certain size will have to report to the EU on the — they have to measure the risks that their algorithms are creating to things like teen mental health, the risks to democracy. These are really big and important questions that the companies have to answer. Then they have to show how they’re going to mitigate those risks.

And that is something that is a really creative way to try to approach this issue without censorship. So, the idea is, the EU is not saying, like, “We’ve decided that this is a bad thing for democracy.” They’re saying, “You need to measure that risk. It’s on you to show how you’re promoting democracy and how you’re not allowing for authoritarianism.” And so, I think it’s an interesting experiment, and the U.S. hasn’t done any of that, right? Like, we are nowhere near regulating algorithms. We haven’t set a basic privacy law. And, you know, the templates are out there.

I will say this, though. California has passed a really strong privacy law that basically emulates the EU law. And so, in California, there is actually a strong privacy law that goes into effect this year. And so, we are finally catching up on the California level, but, of course, Congress has been threatening to preempt that law with something weaker, so we may not actually get to keep that.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have about 30 seconds, Julia, but especially for young people, it is critical, especially for young people on mental health issues, the increase in suicide. What exactly can be done? And as with other issues that you’re raising, can the companies really regulate themselves?

JULIA ANGWIN: Right. I don’t think the companies can regulate themselves. We’ve had decades of them pretending to regulate themselves, and I think we have pretty clear evidence that that’s not working. So I do think we need to, collectively, as a society, determine what our important goals are, and force them to do it. And I think teen mental health is one where, A, there’s not enough research on exactly what is causing the teen mental health problems and how much social media plays in, and, two, we haven’t put any laws in place to sort of enforce the companies to take that issue seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: Julia Angwin, investigative journalist, we’ll link to your new article, “How to Fix the TikTok Problem,” author of Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.

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