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TikTok & China

I am far from being any kind of expert on these issues, & I’m pretty low-confidence on these ideas—just trying to work with the garage door up & share my thoughts in public. These ideas also came together through several conversations with co-workers & friends.

There’s been a recent kerfuffle about privacy with regards to TikTok, from their iOS 14 clipboard pasting to questionable data mining & storage practices. Overshadowing all of these concerns is that ByteDance is a Chinese company, & all data they store is accessible without anyone’s consent by the Chinese government.

The left’s response to this is largely that all popular social media apps mine data, & making noise about TikTok’s practices is just anti-Chinese racism. This isn’t off-base—what Facebook is doing with user privacy is atrocious & in many cases similar—but I think it misses the point.

(It’s also 2 years too late—some of my friends have been using TikTok daily since fall 2018, so major privacy concerns are for too late at this point, but alas, it’s in the spotlight now since mainstream adults are using it.)

The reports about its data practices have been incredibly non-technical (“like comparing a cup of water to the ocean” on Reddit, of questionable merit, and other articles have been light on details), so frankly I have no idea if they’re collecting data far beyond Facebook & others. What’s outlined in the Reddit post is what I’d expect Facebook collects, but I am way out of my depth there. Personally, I don’t even use TikTok.

I think we should be concerned, though. Even taking at face value that TikTok is doing nothing more invasive than what American social media companies do every day, the data being stored on Chinese servers already means a foreign power in probably the most important direct opposition to the US has a goldmine of data on millions of young people in America. If they’re not securing web requests (?!) or hashing passwords properly, they could even have the direct email & password combos for thousands of people who will be the next generation of American politicians & Congresspeople. If all that data was worthless, they wouldn’t go to all the trouble of collecting it. They’re far too competent for it to all be a mistake.

China is directly creating a separate internet of separate companies with very different values to those of the American internet. While major social media companies in the US violate what users are expecting of their privacy, this reveals that the American internet to begin with has a fundamental belief in a level of privacy. If we didn’t value privacy, we wouldn’t be having this conversation at all, and the American government would be incentivizing building counterparts to apps like WeChat. As Stratechery notes, the “laissez-faire” American model of internet relies on an open market of independent companies optimizing for users, and one of the founding values was privacy, even if profits have overshadowed over time.

There are many tensions with the Chinese government US politicians do talk about, but I think the separate, in many cases conflicting, internets is one that’s not being talked about a lot because it’s only just beginning. TikTok is the first Chinese social media product to be mainstream successful among many demographics in the US, but I don’t think it’s the last.

The critical part is separating the actions of these governments from any citizens. I feel like this should go without saying, but the Chinese government’s handling of user data has nothing to do with Chinese citizens. In the same way that many Americans (myself included, obviously) don’t stand by the NSA’s data collection, many Chinese citizens don’t stand by this either. Ignoring the difference between humans & corporate-government relationships here creates wide-ranging, racist, useless generalizations.

At the same time, if we refuse to acknowledge clear points about how user data is handled, on the basis they should all be treated equally, we’re preventing ourselves from having a critical conversation about privacy issues & governments. And that conversation will only become more important over time.

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