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TikTok’s struggles shine light on data collection

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By Samuel Orazem EBS Contributor

The social media app TikTok has exploded in popularity over the past few years, reaching over two billion users worldwide as of April 2020. Recently, however, the seemingly benign application filled with short-form videos has come under fire from government officials around the world. 

TikTok’s honeymoon phase appeared to end this August when it first attracted the attention of President Trump’s administration. The app, owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, has been mired in media controversy and uncertainty about its future ability to operate in the U.S. since.

There are a few theories about what drew President Trump’s attention to the app. The most entertaining involves a prank that created over a million false RSVP’s for his Tulsa, Oklahoma campaign event in June. The more likely cause, however, is that his attention was drawn by a combination of his rhetorical and political reliance on being anti-China, and TikTok’s data collection practices. 

There has been longstanding, bipartisan concern over TikTok’s owner ByteDance, what with it being based in China and questions surrounding where the data collected by TikTok ends up. Firms in China have close ties to their government and ByteDance’s public refutations of working with the Chinese Communist Party carry very little weight for U.S. lawmakers.

ByteDance was fined by the U.S. government in February 2019 for collecting data on children under the age of 13. This led to bipartisan support for an inquiry into the firm’s practices. Furthermore, a post on the website Reddit in April 2020, made by a software engineer, alleged that TikTok collected an amount of data that would put notoriously intrusive U.S. firms, such as Facebook, to shame.

Since August, the Trump administration has been unwavering in their commitment to forcing a sale of U.S. operations to a domestic company. President Trump has also issued executive orders in attempt to regulate TikTok but, as of Sept. 5, these orders have been temporarily halted by a federal judge. 

While a deal with Microsoft appeared to be in the works, it now appears that a 20 percent stake may be acquired by Oracle and Walmart instead. Oracle would handle all the U.S. data, but the details of the potential deal are murky. Statements from all sides seem to contradict each out. In short, the future of TikTok in the U.S. is just as uncertain as ever.

What is certain, however, is that this has put a spotlight on the data collection practices of tech firms and the apparent inability of lawmakers to protect consumers. Companies like Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon and others, harvest incredible amounts of data about everything their users do online. For companies like Facebook and Alphabet, what they collect is a primary source of revenue.

As these companies continue their trajectory towards certifiable monopolies, as is evidenced by increasing interest from federal lawmakers in antitrust investigations, action from lawmakers on more than just TikTok is necessary. TikTok is a convenient target given its ties to China but, when representatives such as Iowa’s Steve King are asking Alphabet’s CEO why notifications from Apple News are appearing on an iPhone in a congressional hearing, the outlook seems bleak.

Samuel Orazem is a political science student at UCLA with a passion for music, its contributions to cultural development, and its potential for empowering social and political mobilization.

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