In April 2018, as Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal, photojournalists captured a fascinating line of argument in the Facebook founder’s typed notes: “Breakup strengthens Chinese companies,” it read.
This defense, which the company’s executives have wielded repeatedly in the past two years, argues that concerns over Facebook’s monopoly power voiced by US senators Lindsey Graham and Elizabeth Warren and others are misplaced. If Congress broke up or regulated Facebook, or another US tech giant, then regulation-free Chinese companies would come to dominate the world. Chinese monoliths could continue to exploit digital markets through privacy invasion, algorithmic processing, and participation in industrial policy with China’s government with impunity. Regulation would also supposedly allow US companies to be bludgeoned into oblivion, because they’d lose the ability to personalize social feeds and manipulate the media experience to maximize user engagement. Eric Schmidt has also suggested that breaking up Big Tech will only help China. Indeed, this argument has resonated even in Congress, given the concerns over American economic security it implicitly raises.
But many experts have called Zuckerberg’s argument empty and misleading. Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, for example, describes this as “spinning up the China bogeyman,” a strategy that “allows the companies to portray their size and the vast amounts of data they store about individuals as a national asset and an antidote to the big firms and big data of China.”
Last week settled the debate once and for all, and fully revealed the hollowness of the bogeyman theory. On Monday, Indian regulators enacted a hard ban on TikTok and 58 other Chinese applications, citing concerns over national security triggered by radical privacy violations that these apps committed against Indian users. While many in the Indian digital rights camp are decrying the decision, the government ban shouldn’t be seen only as a political move in response to rising military tensions, but rather as a strong statement that India will not stand for violations of user privacy enabled by apps like TikTok.
These concerns appear to have been echoed by American politicians on both sides of the aisle, with Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) complaining about the app’s tendency to censor content that is not aligned with the Chinese Communist Party’s political interests, and Senator Chuck Schumer (D_New York) denouncing the app’s privacy implications in that TikTok stores “massive amounts of personal data accessible to foreign governments.”
Bangorlol, meanwhile, also alleged that the app is designed to disproportionately engage new users to keep them hooked on the platform, and, perhaps most insidiously, that TikTok has designed the app such that if someone attempts to debug or reverse engineer it, the app will recognize that and effectively work to conceal its exploitative qualities. “They don’t want you to know how much information they’re collecting on you,” Bangorlol wrote. (TikTok has yet to respond to this report directly, but the company has noted that it sends no user data to China and that it has “no higher priority than earning the trust of users and regulators in the US.”)
Damning as these accusations are, we’ve seen similarly shady practices from American platforms in recent years. For Facebook alone, there’s been the emotional contagion fiasco, in which users’ News Feeds were manipulated to experiment with their mental states; the Cambridge Analytica revelation; a series of anticompetitive practices; and an onslaught of one privacy violation after another.
Informed users have grown accustomed to hearing about the privacy and security risks involved in using internet-connected technology. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has even suggested that privacy itself is an antiquated notion. Many users have come to accept and expect that by using online platforms they must relinquish control of their data.
The threat to China’s place in the digital economy is apparent, spurred by the Reddit post and backed up by the economic force of the ban in India, which will shut TikTok out of the world’s largest democracy. We have seen mounting evidence for the rejection of invasive technologies across the world, including concerns over TikTok in Pakistan, national bans of Huawei (including in Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan), and of zero-rating programs—arrangements by which ISPs typically partner with third parties to provide free data services to users in developing countries if they use certain applications. The reality is that many governments will not hesitate to shut out exploitative technology, and will instead favor services that originate from nations that favor democratic governance and an open approach to the internet—precisely because they produce fair, regulated economic norms for technology companies.
The broader consumer internet industry feeds off a “tracking-and-targeting” business model, which harvests user data for behavior profiling alongside highly sophisticated, opaque algorithms that manipulate users’ digital media experience. We’ve become used to this. And yet, the strategies that TikTok has allegedly implemented are nevertheless alarming.
We should recognize that the intense pressure on Silicon Valley to clean up its act since the 2016 presidential election will not have gone for naught. The dominant American internet platforms have responded—for instance, Facebook shut down Partner Categories, one of Facebook’s data-sharing programs with third-party data brokers. Bangorlol’s post concludes with an acknowledgement that the US platforms Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter “don’t collect anywhere near the same amount of data that TikTok does”—that it’s “like comparing a cup of water to the ocean.”
In the coming months, we can expect the internet reform agenda to continue to gather speed—in India as well as parts of South America, Asia, and Europe. If Congress truly wishes to show leadership and protect the American national security interest, it will recognize this global movement to regulate Silicon Valley and act commensurately, by suggesting a meaningful regulatory framework of its own to preempt overbearing foreign regulation that might hamper American industry.
Such congressional inquiry should start by taking a hard look at the business model underlying companies like Facebook—a business model that features the uninhibited collection and analysis of our personal data to the ends of profit maximization while holding rivals at bay through anticompetitive means—and respond to it through robust reforms to advance consumer privacy, market competition, and algorithmic transparency.
Regulated capitalism and open democratic standards of internet policy will mean that governments must ultimately shift the balance of power from corporations back toward consumers, including through privacy and competition policy measures. But neither we nor the internet sector should fear such developments. The US government has always prized and protected capitalism, but when the market becomes too powerful, democratic interests must come above all else.
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