TikTok – Banned or not, it’s probably here to stay, a summary from Ars Frontiers 2023

By | May 26, 2023

Magnify / On May 22, Ashley Belanger (top left) moderated a panel with Ioana Literat (bottom left), Bryan Cunningham (top right), and Corynne McSherry (bottom right) for the Ars Frontiers 2023 session titled “TikTok— Banned or Not, It’s probably here to stay.”

Ars Frontiers kicked off Monday with a panel called “TikTok— Banned or Not, It’s Probably Here to Stay,” featuring experts on TikTok, data privacy and cybersecurity.

It just so happened that the week before Ars Frontiers, TikTok was banned in Montana. This made the panel discussion particularly timely, as some TikTok creators and TikTok immediately sued the state, hoping to ensure that all Americans maintain access to the Chinese-owned app — despite lawmakers’ concerns about national security that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may using TikTok to access US user data.

Ars Frontiers 2023: “TikTok – Banned or Not, It’s Probably Here to Stay.”

An associate professor in the Design Program for Communication Media and Learning Technologies at Teachers College, Columbia University, Ioana Literat monitors how young people use social media. She has been researching TikTok since it first became available in the US. Banning TikTok at the “peak of its popularity,” Literat said, would set “a huge cultural and political precedent” for TikTok’s young user base, which is so politically active on the app.

“The government hasn’t really shown any compelling justification for the ban,” Literat said. “If you’re going to limit free speech like this, you really have to make a very clear and potent case for the need for the ban” and really prove that “there are no better alternatives to this ban.”

Beyond the rationale for a ban being unpersuasive, Electronic Frontier Foundation legal director Corynne McSherry said state and federal push to ban TikTok was “completely performative and a complete waste of time.” Her organization is advocating for more comprehensive privacy legislation instead of a TikTok ban.

Discussing the various First Amendment concerns that banning TikTok would raise, she agreed with Literat that “the government really hasn’t made much of an effort to get beyond the rhetoric in terms of what we should really be concerned about. “

“Maybe you can hear my voice, I’m a little frustrated about this,” McSherry said. “If we actually care about privacy, which I think we should — I think it’s very important — what we really need is comprehensive federal legislation that doesn’t just target one particular app, but actually really protects all of us by targeting against all the different ways companies are monitoring us all the time.”

Bryan Cunningham, a former White House counsel and executive director of CPRI at the UCI Cybersecurity Policy & Research Institute, predicted that “Congress and the president will try to ban TikTok,” and “it will be a complete failure,” in part because “it is not enforced.”

“I don’t know how you think you’re going to get the app out of tens of millions” of people’s phones, Cunningham said. “Are we going to have border controls where they look at your phone and see if the app is on there?” He said his young daughters would drive to Canada to put TikTok on their phones if they had to, and McSherry pointed out that many users would simply use a VPN service to access the app and circumvent the ban.

Cunningham said that in his view, concerns about the CCP using TikTok to spy on Americans were “very real” but “there are better ways to deal with them” than a ban. He agreed with McSherry that better privacy laws would help limit surveillance.

And TikTokers can even be a part of going that route, Literat said. Her research shows that while young people who use TikTok don’t seem to take the threat of a ban seriously — and relentlessly joked about non-tech-savvy congressmen grilling TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew — they are genuinely concerned about privacy on social media .

McSherry said that over the past two years, she has seen lawmakers get more serious about passing privacy laws that would be “a non-performing way to actually help citizens” avoid surveillance by tech companies.

From a national security standpoint, Cunningham said the threat goes beyond data protection, but also raises concerns that the CCP is manipulating TikTok’s algorithm to sow disinformation, restrict content or push propaganda. To address that problem, he recommended what he called a little-discussed alternative to the ban: imposing financial sanctions on TikTok owner ByteDance.

“Congress can give the president the authority, if he doesn’t have it, to impose economic sanctions against ByteDance,” Cunningham said.

Ars Frontiers is all about innovation, and both McSherry and Cunningham pointed out that new apps could emerge to replace TikTok at any time. This is one reason why focusing politics on one app seems extremely short-sighted. But for the roughly 150 million Americans on TikTok today, Literat suggested that, at least for now, TikTok looks irreplaceable.

TikTok “has cemented this role in our cultural imagination,” Literat said. “And it has that role in young people’s lives, and I think it’s going to be very difficult for a platform to just replace that. It takes time. And of course users care about where their friends are, where their peers are, and right now those on TikTok. So there’s got to be a pretty mass migration, and I don’t see that happening on other platforms yet.”

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