TikTok bill is not xenophobic

I wasn’t sure whether I felt that strongly about the TikTok bill until I read this blog post by Ben Werdmuller. I usually love Ben’s posts but I disagree with him on TikTok and the open web, so let me respond to a few points:

Ironically, banning a service from the open internet nationwide is exactly the kind of thing that China has done again and again through its Great Firewall. Rather than protect American users through the kinds of far-reaching privacy legislation that we need, government chose to address TikTok alone on the basis of what amounts to xenophobic protectionism.

I’m not convinced American privacy legislation will have much impact on a company based in China. TikTok has also long promised to host data in America — “Project Texas” — and according to recent reports the effort is largely cosmetic.

This is not a ban of TikTok. This is a focused effort to force ByteDance to sell the company, so that it can be controlled by a company with more transparency and accountability. If ByteDance refuses to sell TikTok, the app will be removed from distribution by platform gatekeepers, but there’s nothing to stop TikTok from continuing to operate and be available to Americans via the web, as long as it’s hosted somewhere else.

From HR 815, now signed into law:

Providing services to distribute, maintain, or update such foreign adversary controlled application (including any source code of such application) by means of a marketplace (including an online mobile application store) through which users within the land or maritime borders of the United States may access, maintain, or update such application.

It might even be a positive outcome for the open web by shedding light on Apple and Google’s tight control over app distribution, and showing users why Progressive Web Apps can be a good alternative solution. TikTok would potentially be slower with a poorer user experience, or maybe it wouldn’t, but the open web is not going to fall apart so easily.

It’s true that some US Senators have shown themselves to be ignorant, xenophobic, and racist, on not just this bill but a range of issues. And yet a broken clock is right twice a day.

Ben writes sarcastically:

There’s a possibility that TikTok will be used to spread propaganda, unlike every other social network

I will be the first person to criticize massive social platforms. Significant portions of my book are about exactly that. It’s a very real problem to have so much concentrated power. But as much as we might dislike how Mark Zuckerberg runs Facebook, we can be pretty confident he is not going to undermine America on purpose, quietly putting a foot on the scale with propaganda to amplify political chaos.

Scott Galloway, co-host of the Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher, was on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this week:

What might sound paranoid, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong: I think we are being manipulated, specifically youth, who their frame for the world is TikTok. If you look at TikTok, there are 52 videos that are pro-Hamas or pro-Palestinian for every one served on Israel. I think that we’re being manipulated. I think Americans are easier to fool than to convince they’ve been fooled. But if I were the CCP, I’d be doing exactly the same thing. I think social media is sowing division and polarization in our society.

We just can’t be sure whether the algorithm is only giving people what they want or whether there’s any influence being fed into it. Ben Thompson wrote on Stratechery years ago that there is evidence that Americans should be concerned:

TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?

Wondering about China’s influence on the TikTok algorithm isn’t xenophobic. It’s not about the people. It’s about the leadership. In the same way we can blame Putin for the war in Ukraine and still be sympathetic and trusting of the Russian people, we can be skeptical of the motivations of the Chinese Communist Party and still respect people in China, admire their culture, and welcome Chinese immigrants to America with open arms.

And what if I’m wrong? What if it turns out there’s zero influence from the Chinese Communist Party and only pure intentions with the TikTok algorithm, as far as making a bunch of money on ads can be considered pure? TikTok is still probably a net negative for society, and I’m not going to lose sleep if their business stumbles or the bill leads to more competition in short video social networks.

Manton Reece @manton