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Lawmakers are trying to ban TikTok. But the app is hardly the only offender

New York CNN  —  When lawmakers grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew during a lengthy hearing last March, Rep. Darren Soto argued what has now become the crux of a bill that overwhelmingly passed in the House this week. “TikTok needs to be an American company with American values,” Soto, a Democrat from Florida, told the TikTok chief executive. Chew, meanwhile, clapped back, “American social companies don’t have a good track record with data privacy and user security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.” Roughly one year later, House lawmakers on Wednesday overwhelmingly voted to pass a bill that would effectively ban TikTok in the United States or force its sale, citing national security concerns due to the social media platform’s parent company, ByteDance, being based in Beijing. Proponents of the bill argue that TikTok, which boasts 170 million American users, poses a national security threat because China’s intelligence laws could force ByteDance to hand over US user data to the Chinese Communist Party. The move to ban TikTok might win political points with some China-hawk voters in an election year. But if lawmakers were serious about protecting the digital data of millions of American social media users, targeting TikTok alone is a limited way to achieve this goal. “Whether it’s dressed up as a ban or a forced sale, targeting TikTok is shortsighted and dangerous when what we really need is strong privacy legislation to protect our data from all Big Tech companies, not just one,” Evan Greer, the director of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, told CNN. While lawmakers rallied at dizzying speed to get the TikTok bill passed through the House, they have largely sputtered on any broader legislation aimed at reining in the power of Big Tech companies. The US House of Representatives is set to vote on legislation that would ban TikTok, a major challenge to one of the world’s most popular social media apps used by 170 million Americans, unless it part ways with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Will Lanzoni/CNN In the absence of comprehensive data privacy laws that apply to all social media companies, not just TikTok, Greer said, “Our data will be vulnerable to surveillance, whether it’s from China, Russia, or even our own government.” The US government has not publicly detailed any specific claim that China has actually accessed TikTok user data. And earlier this year, it came to light that a US government agency itself routinely buys the sensitive digital data of Americans from the largely unregulated data broker market — data that would otherwise require a warrant to obtain. Separately, US intelligence authorities have said that Russian operatives were able to exploit US-based social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter as part of an election meddling campaign in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential vote. And Meta is in the midst of paying a $725 million settlement related to the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal that affected some 87 million Facebook users (and which Chew referenced in his testimony last year). And while lawmakers have doubled down their focus on TikTok this election year, Facebook-parent company Meta has quietly rolled back some of its election-related content moderation policies — and now will allow political ads on its platforms that question the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election. A person walks past a newly unveiled logo for "Meta", the new name for Facebook's parent company, outside Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park on October 28, 2021. Noah Berger/AFP/Getty Images Greer slammed the bill that passed the House Wednesday as “not a serious effort to address the harm of Big Tech data harvesting or legitimate concerns about Chinese government policies.” “It’s just unconstitutional and xenophobic showboating that serves no purpose beyond giving politicians something to fundraise off of while leaving all of us vulnerable,” Greer said. Related article Asian Americans are anxious about hate crimes. TikTok ban rhetoric isn’t helping Justin Sherman, an adjunct professor at Duke University and CEO of Global Cyber Strategies, a DC-based cyber research firm, told CNN that, “Many things can be true at once: TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance should prompt real national security questions, and the US also needs comprehensive privacy and cybersecurity regulations for all companies.” Sherman was among the researchers TikTok invited last year to be briefed on its “Project Texas” initiative to safeguard US user data and address lawmakers’ security concerns. Sherman said he thinks some lawmakers are raising important national security concerns regarding TikTok. Still, he says, “It’s also simultaneously shameful that Congress has failed so miserably to generate bipartisan consensus and follow-through on protecting kids’ privacy and other critical privacy and cybersecurity issues while spending so much time talking about TikTok.” Even if TikTok’s ownership structure changes, Sherman says, “there are still fundamental questions that will remain” about software updates, data storage, data transmission and national security. Ultimately, Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, called the bill a “missed opportunity” for Congress to take real action regarding their concerns about US user data. “The bill is also a missed opportunity because Congress can address the most serious problems associated with TikTok without restricting Americans’ access to one of the world’s most popular communications platforms,” Jaffer said in a statement Wednesday that slammed the bill as a “betrayal” of the First Amendment. Jaffer continued: “It should begin by passing a comprehensive privacy law.”