Byte down: TikTok scapegoated for failure to regulate Big Tech

Congress should commit to making up for lost time and start looking at an industry that has been allowed to grow over the last three decades into a series of dominant monopolies with little in the way of oversight or guardrails

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Editorials

March 14, 2024 - 2:44 PM

Congress' outrage at the danger of social media apps is somewhat of a farce.

In a political stampede Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill that would force the social media app TikTok to be divested from China-based owner ByteDance, or face banning. The Senate should have more sense and slow this down.

If the concern is that TikTok might become rife with propaganda, disinformation or anti-democratic junk, and the expectation is that this will be ameliorated by sale to a U.S. entity, we have some bad news. 

The site once known as Twitter has plunged into much of the same muck since its purchase by American billionaire and noted narcissist Elon Musk, who got rid of a huge swath of the trust and safety team and has dedicated himself to pushing racist great replacement garbage, jetted to the top of users’ feeds by an algorithm tailored to uplift his posts.

If what lawmakers fear is that enormous volumes of user data, particularly on youngsters, will be siphoned off, stored, sold off to third parties, used for marketing and political targeting and fed into AI training algorithms, then we agree wholeheartedly with that apprehensiveness.

That’s why they should commit to making up for lost time and start looking at an industry that has been allowed to grow over the last three decades into a series of dominant monopolies with little in the way of oversight or guardrails — not just ByteDance, but Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp; Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube; Apple, with its cornering of the devices market and iron grip on its app store; and so on.

Go ahead, block rampant data collection and force transparency for opaque internal processes that affect billions of people. You don’t like governments being able to utilize data from social media apps to override civil liberties? Great, stop the NSA and other federal, state and local law enforcement from simply buying up personal data that they would otherwise need a warrant for.

Better yet, stop the widespread purchase, bundling and third party sale of granular personal data in the first place. Foster competition in an industry that fancies itself a hub of innovation but has descended into startups burning through venture cash until the exit plan of being bought by one of the tech giants. Show companies that they can’t run roughshod over regulations — that the days of Uber and Airbnb openly flouting laws with little consequence are over.

If lawmakers refuse to move on any of this, then perhaps it’s an indication that TikTok is an easy scapegoat because of its Beijing ownership. The Chinese Communist Party does try to interfere with U.S. elections, in violation of American law. But the Politburo doesn’t need to own the app for that mischief.

Indeed, despite the months of innuendo, lawmakers have yet to present any concrete evidence that TikTok has been used nefariously by the Chinese government, at least any more so than its U.S.-based competitors like Twitter, which was the locus of a massive disinformation campaign by Xi Jinping’s government.

Maybe this equivocating is a marker of what the tech industry’s gargantuan lobbying campaigns have bought — an eye-watering $70 million on Congress alone as of 2022, outstripping stalwarts like oil and pharmaceuticals, without even counting surging state-level lobbying expenditures. For shame.

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