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OPINION

Banning TikTok is the wrong solution to data privacy concerns

It would be a politically motivated move, and the wrong solution to the larger and legitimate concern of data privacy and sharing.

Bans on Chinese apps are not an effective way to secure Americans’ data.Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

It’s become my nightly ritual: Right after I go to bed and before grabbing my Kindle, I open my “For You” page on TikTok, which is the feed with videos selected by the social media app’s algorithm that are customized to my personal interests.

The other night I was howling with laughter after watching a group of Argentinian soccer fans who lost power in the middle of the thrilling penalty shootout in the Argentina-Netherlands World Cup match. Five of them were crammed into a car listening to the final penalty kick by Argentina’s Lautaro Martinez. In suspense, the fans hold one another’s hands as if to pray. Then one of the women says, “Let’s visualize Lautaro’s ball inside the net,” and with serious concentration she starts leading the others in a chant, seemingly to manifest Argentina’s victory into existence. When Lautaro scores, the fans explode, screaming with excitement. The video has a couple of million views.

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Sometimes I just play TikTok videos of my older dog, Santo. What can I say? It makes me happy to watch him. Santo went viral on the app after I uploaded a 15-second video of him waiting patiently on our porch for the doggie day care van to take him on a hike with other dogs. The video has had more than 9.8 million views since I posted it in early April 2021.

That’s the thing about TikTok, the controversial app owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, based in Beijing. TikTok has become a sensational platform for amateurs and established entertainers who offer an addictive, endless stream of creative short videos that are surprisingly fresh, funny, or emotional. At least that’s what the TikTok algorithm — which connects the dots between what I watched, how many times I watched it and for how long, and what I may enjoy next — has learned to serve on my feed: dogs, book recommendations (#BookTok has dramatically reshaped the publishing industry), new products to try (#TikTokMadeMeBuyIt), and recently, World Cup content.

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Should this platform of infinite fun be taken away from Americans over national security concerns, given that the app is owned by a Chinese company with inexorable ties to China’s communist government? Earlier this week, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida filed federal legislation to ban TikTok. Then-president Donald Trump attempted and failed to do so in 2020.

But banning TikTok is still a politically motivated move and it’s the wrong solution to the larger and legitimate concern of data privacy and sharing.

First, a disclaimer about my hobby as a TikTok creator for my dogs, who now have more than 115,000 followers on the app. That qualifies me to get paid by the app. How much? That depends on how many times I post (not too often), how many views and likes my posts get, and whatever other secret sauce goes into the formula. Since mid-April, my dogs have earned our household roughly $434. My husband jokes that, by his unscientific calculations, that payment represents about $2.50 an hour that we got paid by the Chinese. (Ironically, that’s less than the $4 that a factory worker in Beijing earns per hour, on average.)

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For the record, that’s not why I don’t want TikTok to be banned. Rubio’s legislation singles out TikTok, or any other subsidiary of ByteDance, over fears that it’s being used to spy on Americans. But it ignores other Chinese-owned tech companies that also have a significant US user base, like Alibaba, the large e-commerce retailer, or Tencent, which owns WeChat and some popular online games.

It would be much more effective to enact federal privacy legislation that would closely regulate tech companies (yes, including ByteDance), data brokers, and other entities that are largely void of oversight. The data brokerage issue is a serious threat to US national security: it’s the practice, largely unregulated, of collecting, aggregating, analyzing, buying, and selling US citizen data on the open market.

Indeed, bans on Chinese apps are not an effective way to secure Americans’ data, according to Samm Sacks, senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center and a cybersecurity policy fellow at New America. Sacks testified before Congress last year on data threat issues. “Even if TikTok were American-owned, for example, it could still legally sell data to data brokers that could transmit it to China’s security services,” Sacks testified. “Given this, American data is shockingly exposed and will remain that way so long as restrictions on data flows only focus on specific companies from countries deemed adversaries.”

That’s not to say that TikTok isn’t without criticism. There’s evidence that it is not doing enough to fight misinformation on the app or to protect teens from harmful content, and that despite assurances to the contrary, Chinese employees of ByteDance can access TikTok US user data. Recently, several governors have banned the app on state-issued devices, but that’s an entirely sensible move. Many private companies already restrict what apps employees are allowed to download on company-owned smartphones, both for productivity and security reasons.

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Rubio’s proposed ban probably won’t go anywhere. TikTok is only growing: It reportedly has more than 1 billion global users, a milestone the company apparently achieved at a faster rate than Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. It just needs better US regulation.


Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.