TikTok’s popularity exploded at the start of 2020. Today, the app shows no signs of letting up, tearing into a field previously dominated by American companies. TikTok has been on the scene since September 2016, however, its popularity only started to rise after its acquisition of Musical.ly in August 2018. What looked to be a rehash of Vine quickly established itself as much more than a comedic video platform, and began to redefine social media as a whole.
Chinese company Bytedance currently owns TikTok and faces controversy in the United States over perceived data threats. President Donald Trump has gone on record to say that he will ban the app, citing concerns over the app’s user data collection, and the company’s questionable relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Recently, an executive order was signed into law that directly attacked TikTok and other Chinese based apps such as WeChat.
But how did a short-style, video-sharing app turn into Trump vs. the CCP? In order to answer this, we must closely examine data collection practices on the internet today:
Data Collection on the Internet
Social media apps collect data from users. Questions remain concerning how much information they take and where that data goes. Nonetheless, data collection continues to play a major role in big tech companies’ business models. In 2014, the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal made this fact clear to the general public after businessmen attempted to sell personal data and information on Facebook users. Furthermore, this scandal incited curiosity in Facebook users, forcing them to think about just how much information Facebook takes from them, why, and where it's all going.
Facebook, like other social media apps and websites, stores data from its users in various ways. When someone makes an account on Facebook, immediately their name, workplace, age, gender, location, and login information are taken by the company. Later, even when users are not browsing social media, Facebook continues to acquire information based on online behaviors. Through business deals with exterior companies and web services, Facebook learns about habits, interests, plans, and other personal information. “Software development kits—or SDKs—are common inside of apps,” explains Sam Schechner from the Wall Street Journal, “and Facebook's are among the most widely distributed. Any information shared with an app may also be shared with the maker of the SDK, many of which collect data on users.” In addition to general browsing information, Facebook even has the ability to store extremely personal information, like social security numbers. However, “Facebook automatically deletes some sensitive data it might receive,” according to a Facebook spokesperson.
The level of data collected by these companies should not be understated, and oftentimes users do not know that they are being monitored. Apps that would not even come to mind when considering data collection do in fact collect data and send it to companies like Facebook. On the App Store today, six of the top fifteen fitness apps collect and send sensitive information, according to the WSJ. This means that Facebook may in fact have not only a user’s login information, but also their height, weight, and general health condition.
Looking at how companies like Facebook and other tech giants are doing, it is clear why this type of collection happens. Researchers in 2019 found that Facebook accounted for 20% of the $333 billion digital-advertising market. But, it's not just Facebook. Google has long held the throne for digital advertising and they too have actively taken data similar to Facebook, as reported by CNBC.
TikTok and Data Collection
When referring to how they share this information, TikTok ensures users that their information is not sold to third parties, and is only shared with “[their] corporate group and with service providers as necessary for them to perform a business purpose, professional service, or technology support function for us.” TikTok never goes on to say exactly who these “corporate groups” are, or to what extent they use the information.
TikTok, US Companies, and Internet Privacy
This type of nondescript and unclear policy is among the reasons why American politicians are worried. However, one question must be raised: is it TikTok they want to ban, or its Chinese connection? From looking at how US companies operate with regards to data collection, it is clear that they are not much better. “Chinese apps are frequently far more abusive than others,” says ACLU senior technology fellow Jon Callas. Callas goes on to say that the ACLU “hates [American tech companies]” and their data policies as well. A TikTok ban now starts to look less like protection of the American people from data breaches, and more like protection from the Chinese government. While this certainly still stands as a solid argument for stopping TikTok’s function in the US, it shouldn’t be forgotten that U.S. companies will continue to do what TikTok is currently doing.
The U.S. has been hesitant to stop companies from taking data from users, but the minute a Chinese company does, they are threatened with a nationwide ban. Could it be that the U.S. simply wants to be the only one collecting info from its citizens? The data mined in the U.S. by Facebook and Google certainly stimulates the economy, and it is not hard to believe the government would overlook privacy violations if it meant increasing economic output.
Regardless of the reasons behind the ban, it nonetheless brings up a dialogue concerning data privacy and rights to internet information. If Tiktok is getting banned for taking user information, should Facebook and Google suffer as well? If the U.S. is prepared to protect citizens from possible Chinese data mining, shouldn’t they also protect those same people from American corporations? “There is no single law regulating online privacy. Instead, a patchwork of federal and state laws apply,” according to a Reuters article on online data legislation in the U.S. With that in mind, a Tiktok ban may be the perfect launching point for an investigation into internet privacy. It remains to be seen how the Tiktok ban will go, but the problem and complications behind the ban will resonate for long after, sparking conversations about the reach of corporations, and the rights that all people should be afforded both on and offline.