Pluralistic: We should ban TikTok('s surveillance) (30 Mar 2023)

Today's links

A modified vintage editorial cartoon. Uncle Sam peeks out over a 'frowning battlement' whose cannon-slots are filled with telescopes from which peer the red glaring eyes of HAL 9000 from '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Topping the battlements in a row are Uncle Sam and three business-suited figures with dollar-sign-bags for heads. The three dollar-bag men have corporate logos on their breasts: Facebook, Google, Apple. Standing on the strand below the battlements, peering up, is a forlorn figure with a Tiktok logo for a head. The fortress wall bears the words 'RESTRICT Act.'

We should ban TikTok('s surveillance) (permalink)

With the RESTRICT Act, Congress is proposing to continue Trump's war on Tiktok, enacting a US ban on the Chinese-owned service. How will they do this? Congress isn't clear. In practice, banning stuff on the internet is hard, especially if you don't have a national firewall:

My guess is that they're thinking of ordering the mobile duopoly of Google and Apple to nuke the Tiktok app from their app stores. That's how they do it in China, after all: when China wanted to ban VPNs and other privacy tools, they just ordered Apple to remove them from the App Store, and Apple rolled over:

That's the completely foreseeable consequence of arrogating the power to decide which software every mobile user on earth is entitled to use – as Google and Apple have done. Once you put that gun on the mantelpiece in Act I, you damn betcha that some strong-man backed by a powerful state is going to come along and shoot it by Act III.

The same goes for commercial surveillance: once you collect massive, nonconsensual dossiers on every technology user alive, you don't get to act surprised when cops and spies show up and order your company to serve as deputies for a massive, off-the-books warrantless surveillance project.

Hell, a cynic might even say that commercial surveillance companies are betting on this. The surveillance public-private partnership is a vicious cycle: corporations let cops and spies plunder our data; then the cops and spies lobby against privacy laws that would prevent these corporations from spying on us:

Which makes the RESTRICT Act an especially foolish project. If the Chinese state wants to procure data on Americans, it need not convince us to install Tiktok. It can simply plunk down a credit card with any of the many unregulated data-brokers who feed the American tech giants the dossiers that the NSA and local cops rely on.

Every American tech giant is at least as bad for privacy as Tiktok is – yes, even Apple. Sure, Apple lets its users block Facebook spying with a single tap – but even if you opt out of "tracking," Apple still secretly gathers exactly the same kinds of data as Facebook, and uses it to power its own ad product:

There is no such thing as a privacy-respecting tech giant. Long before Apple plastered our cities with lying billboards proclaiming its reverence for privacy, Microsoft positioned itself as the non-spying alternative to Google, which would be great, except Microsoft spies on hundreds of millions of people and sells the data:

Tech's surveillance addiction means that Tiktok's own alternative to the RESTRICT Act is also unbelievably stupid. The company has proposed to put itself under Oracle's supervision, letting Oracle host its data and audit its code. You know, Oracle, the company that built the Great Firewall of China 1.0:

We should not trust Tiktok any more than we trust Apple, Facebook, Google or Microsoft. Tiktok lied about whether it was sending data to China before:

And even if it keeps its promise not to send user data to China, that promise is meaningless – it can still send the vectors and models it creates with that data to China – these being far more useful for things like disinformation campaigns and population-scale inferences than the mere logs from your Tiktok sessions.

There are so many potentially harmful ways to process commercial surveillance data that trying to enumerate all the things that a corporation is allowed to do with the data it extracts from us is a fool's errand. Instead, we should ban companies from spying on us, whether they are Chinese or American.

Corporations are remorseless, paperclip-maximizing colony organisms that perceive us as inconvenient gut-flora, and they lack any executive function (as do their "executives"), and cannot self-regulate. To keep corporations from harming us, we must make it illegal for them to enact harm, and punish them when they break the law:

After all, the problem with Tiktok isn't the delightful videos or the fact that it's teaching a generation of children to be expert sound- and video-editors. The problem with Tiktok is that it spies on us. Just like the problem with Facebook isn't that it lets us communicate with our friends, and the problem with Google isn't that it operates a search engine.

Now, these companies will tell you that the two can't be separated, that a bearded prophet came down off a mountain with two stone tablets, intoning, "Larry, Sergey, thou shalt stop rotating thine logfiles and, lo, thou wilt data-mine them for actionable market intelligence." But it's nonsense. Google ran for years without surveillance. Facebook billed itself as the privacy-forward alternative to Myspace and promised never to spy on us:

The inevitabilist narrative that says that corporations must violate our rights in order to make the products we love is unadulterated Mr Gotcha nonsense: "Yet you participate in society. Curious. I am very intelligent":

Of course, corporations push this narrative all the time, which is why American Big Tech has been quietly supporting a ban on Tiktok, which (coincidentally) has managed to gain a foothold in the otherwise impregnable, decaying, enshittified oligarchy that US companies have created.

They have conspicuously failed to call for any kind of working solution, like a federal privacy law that would ban commercial surveillance, and extend a "private right of action," so people could sue tech giants and data-brokers who violated the law, without having to convince a regulator, DA or Attorney General to bestir themselves:

Instead, the tech giants have the incredible gall to characterize themselves as the defenders of our privacy – at least, so long as the Chinese government is the adversary, and so long as its privacy violations come via an app, and not by handing a credit card to the data-brokers that are the soil bacteria that keeps Big Tech's ecosystem circulating. In the upside-down land of Big Tech lobbying, privacy is a benefit of monopoly – not something we have to smash monopolies to attain:

Not everyone in Congress is onboard with the RESTRICT Act. AOC has come out for a federal privacy law that applies to all companies, rather than a ban on an app that tens of millions of young Americans love:

You know who agrees with AOC? Rand Paul. Yes, that absolute piece of shit. Paul told his caucusmates in the GOP that banning an app that millions of young American voters love is bad electoral politics. This fact is so obvious that even Rand fucking Paul can understand it:

Paul is absolutely right to call a Tiktok ban a "national strategy to permanently lose elections for a generation." The Democrats should listen to him, because the GOP won't. As between the two parties, the GOP is far more in thrall to the Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the business lobby. They are never going to back a policy that's as good for the people and as bad for big business as a federal privacy law.

The Democrats have the opportunity to position themselves as "the party that wants to keep Tiktok but force it to stop being creepy, along with all the other tech companies," while the GOP positions itself as "the party of angry technophobes who want to make sure that any fun you have is closely monitored by Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pinchai and Tim Cook and their pale imitations of the things you love about Tiktok."

That's not just good electoral politics – it's good policy. Young voters aren't going to turn out to the polls for performative Cold War 2.0 nonsense, but they will be pissed as hell at whoever takes away their Tiktok.

And if you do care about Cold War 2.0, then you should be banning surveillance, not Tiktok; the Chinese government has plenty of US dollars at its disposal to spend in America's freewheeling, unregulated data markets – as do criminals, petty and organized, and every other nation-state adversary of the USA.

The RESTRICT Act is a garbage law straight out of the Clinton era, a kind of King Canute decree that goes so far as to potentially prohibit the use of VPNs to circumvent its provisions. America doesn't need a Great Firewall to keep itself safe from tech spying – it needs a privacy law.

(Image: Cryteria, CC BY 3.0, modified)

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Colophon (permalink)

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