TikTok's Got Trouble

TikTok app shown on mobile phone
imageBROKER/David Talukdar/Newscom

A social media app from China is said to seduce our teenagers in ways that American platforms can only dream of. Gen Z has already wasted half a young lifetime on videos of pranks, makeup tutorials, and babies dubbed to talk like old men. Now computer sorcerers employed by a hostile government allegedly have worse in store. Prohibit this "digital fentanyl," the argument goes, or the Republic may be lost.

And so President Joe Biden signed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act of 2024, which requires the China-based company ByteDance to either spin-off TikTok or watch it be banned. Separating the company from the app would supposedly solve the other problem frequently blamed on TikTok: the circle linking U.S. users' personal data to the Chinese Communist Party. The loop has already been cut, TikTok argues, because American users' data are now stored with Oracle in Texas. That's about as believable as those TikTok baby talk vignettes, retorts Congress.

If Congress has got the goods on the Communists, do tell! Those Homeland Security threat assessment color charts from the 2000s are tan, rested, and ready. But slapping a shutdown on a company because of mere rumors—that really is an ugly import from China.

The people pushing for TikTok regulation argue that the app's problems go far further than the challenges raised when kids burn their brains on Snap, Insta/Facebook, Twitter/X, Pinterest, YouTube/Google, and the rest of the big blue Internet. In The Music Man, Henry Hill swept a placid town into frenzy with his zippy rendition of the darkness that might lurk in an amusement parlor. Today we're told that TikTok is foreign-owned and addictive, that its algorithms may favor anti-American themes, and that it makes U.S. users sitting ducks for backdoor data heists.

Though the bill outlaws U.S. access to TikTok if ByteDance cannot assign the platform to a non-Chinese enterprise within 9–12 months (which the company says it will not do), prediction markets give the ban only a 24 percent chance of kicking in by May 2025. Those low odds reflect, in part, the high probability that the law will be found unconstitutional. ByteDance has already filed suit. It is supported by the fact that First Amendment rights extend to speakers of foreign origin, as U.S. courts have repeatedly explained.

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera bought an entire American cable channel, Current TV—part owner Al Gore pocketed $100 million for the sale in 2013—to bring its slant to 60 million U.S. households. Free speech reigned and the market ruled: Al Jazeera got only a tiny audience share and exited just a few years later.

Writing in The Free Press, Rep. Michael Gallagher (R–Wisc.)—co-sponsor of the TikTok bill—claims that because the Chinese Communist Party allegedly "uses TikTok to push its propaganda and censor views," the United States must move to block. This endorsement of the Chinese "governing system" evinces no awareness of the beauty of our own. We can combat propaganda with our free press (including The Free Press). Of greatest help is that the congressman singles out the odious views that the Chinese potentates push: on Tiananmen, Muslims, LGBTQ issues, Tibet, and elsewise.

Our federal jurists will do well to focus on Gallagher's opening salvo versus TikTok: "A growing number of Americans rely on it for their news. Today, TikTok is the top search engine for more than half of Gen Z." This underscores the fact that his new rules are not intended to be "content neutral."

Rather than shouting about potential threats, TikTok's foes should report any actual mendacities or violations of trust. Where criminal—as with illicitly appropriating users' data—such misbehavior should be prosecuted by the authorities. Yet here the National Security mavens have often gone AWOL.

New York Times reporter David Sanger, in The Perfect Weapon (2018), provides spectacular context. In about the summer of 2014, U.S. intelligence found that a large state actor—presumed by officials to be China—had hacked U.S.-based servers and stolen data for 22 million current and former U.S. government employees. More than 4 million of these victims lost highly personal information, including Social Security numbers, medical records, fingerprints, and security background checks. The U.S. database had been left unencrypted. It was a flaw so sensational that, when the theft was finally discovered, it was noticed that the exiting data was (oddly) encrypted, an upgrade the hackers had conscientiously supplied so as to carry out their burgle with stealth.

Here's the killer: Sanger reports that "the administration never leveled with the 22 million Americans whose data were lost—except by accident." The victims simply got a note that "some of their information might have been lost" and were offered credit-monitoring subscriptions. This was itself a bit of a ruse; the hack was identified as a hostile intelligence operation because the lifted data was not being sold on the Dark Web.

Hence, a vast number of U.S. citizens—including undercover agents—have presumably been compromised by China. This has ended careers, and continues to threaten victims, without compensation or even real disclosure.

The accidental government acknowledgment came in a slip of the tongue by National Security Chief James Clapper: "You kind of have to salute the Chinese for what they did." At a 2016 hearing just weeks later, Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.) drilled Clapper on the breach, demanding to know why the attack had gone unreported. Clapper's answer? "Because people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw rocks." An outraged McCain could scarcely believe it. "So it's OK for them to steal our secrets that are most important, because we live in a glass house. That is astounding."

While keeping the American public in the dark about real breaches, U.S. officials raise the specter of a potential breach to trample free speech. The TikTok ban is Fool's Gold. The First Amendment is pure genius. Let's keep one of them.

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