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Tech ethics faculty fear focus on banning TikTok is misplaced

Brendan Carr, a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), said the social media app TikTok should be banned in the U.S. The Council on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) has spent months negotiating with TikTok to determine if it can be divested by its Chinese parent company ByteDance creating bleak outlooks and the possibility of a ban. 

The main concern is the security of U.S. citizens. TikTok collects data on all of its users.  

“No one is storing the nuclear secrets launch codes on Tik Tok, don’t get me wrong. But our behavior patterns, our interests, what we like and don’t like and how we watch consuming media. That’s a goldmine of information,” Tim Weninger, affiliated faculty of the Notre Dame Technology Ethics Center, said. 

Director of the Tech Ethics Center Kirsten Martin said other tech giants collect similar data but don’t receive the same amount of scrutiny as TikTok.

“The thing that’s odd that there’s such a fixation on TikTok is that that same type of data is available for foreign governments to take advantage of on Instagram or Facebook,” Martin said. 

Martin added that the issue goes well beyond TikTok and fundamentally lies in the current state of ad delivery systems.

“They can still get access to it because Facebook or Instagram or whatever, any social networks, will give them access by selling access to us, based on what our preferences and concerns are, who we’re friends with, where we spend our time, where we are, you know, all that kind of stuff,” she said. “I agree with the general concern. It’s just that it seems to be a misplaced concern on TikTok, when it’s a more general problem with the way the ad delivery systems work.”

Current attitudes toward China divert Americans’ attention to TikTok when it comes to the issue of data collection, Weninger said.

“The reason that we’re interested in it is not because it’s got fake news and stuff, I mean it does, but it’s because it’s owned by China, a Chinese company, and we’re deathly afraid that we’re sending a lot of data about our behaviors and activities and our interests, all the social media things to the Chinese,” Weninger said. 

Martin said significant regulations on collecting data through social media are yet to come in part because it benefits political campaigns.

“That’s one of the reasons why they don’t want to stop hyper-targeting, these political operatives use them all the time. And so it’s not a mistake that they haven’t stopped the collection and use of our data. It’s because it’s so useful when trying to micro-target for political reasons,” Martin said. 

Because a large portion of young voters on TikTok tend to vote Democrat, Weninger said the Biden administration would be hesitant to consider banning the app.

“So it will be Joe Biden doing this, it will be kicking off a bunch of 25 to 30 year olds who are on Tik Tok. I don’t know if politically that’s something that he wants to touch,” Weninger said.

Within this age of technology, some find it hard to believe that this would be feasible. They may be able to ban the app, but they will not be able to keep people off of it. Many kids nowadays understand how VPNs work and that they can mess with their locations to have access to technology, movies and television shows that are not available in a certain country.

Martin said she doubts completely banning the app in the U.S. is feasible. Virtual private networks (VPNs) allow users to appear as though they’re accessing the Internet from a different location.

“I can’t imagine anyone successfully banning a social network site from 14 to 24-year-olds,” Martin said. “I just think the technical ability of a 14-year-old to watch a movie pretending that they’re in Germany on a VPN is pretty good.”

Weninger said going to the lengths of setting up a VPN would discourage lots of users from browsing the app.

“Why is TikTok so popular? Because it’s easy and it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort. Imagine trying to set up a VPN so you can browse this thing which takes no effort. I just don’t see it happening,” he said. 

The federal government needs to attempt to regulate the app before it resorts to banning it, Weninger said. Allowing the government to ban an app like TikTok would set a dangerous precedent, he fears.

“If the executive branch can just ban a site that hasn’t violated any laws, that’s a problem,” Weninger said. “It makes me a little scared because then what prevents the government from banning you know, some site that maybe you rely upon that’s maybe not bad.”

Contact Emma Duffy at eduffy5@nd.edu.