Roff: Press Pause in the TikTok War – Before It’s Too Late

by | Mar 15, 2024 | Opinion

Washington, D.C. – The last several years have seen changes in the way the world communicates that outnumber all those that came before them across several lifetimes. 

The Internet, apps, smartphones, social media—we are at a point where the potential for interconnectivity exceeds the wildest dreams of innovators like Morse, Bell, and Marconi. From Harlem to Haiti, from the San Fernando Valley to Sweden, people are reaching out to one another like never before for pennies. 

It’s not just big business; it’s a global concern—and in more ways than one. The connections TikTok has created between people living in places like Chino, California, and Communist China have U.S. lawmakers worried. To them, TikTok isn’t just an outlet for creative impulses; it’s an appendage of the Chinese military used to gather vital intelligence about the behavior and preferences of the American people. As such, they say, it’s an existential threat to our nation and our liberty.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s just another large tech company gathering, analyzing, and processing our data to reach conclusions about who we are, what we buy, and why we think the way we do. It’s not pernicious, at least not in and of itself. Plenty of tech companies do likewise now. No one calls them a threat to national security.

The rules regarding privacy are changing as technology increasingly makes it possible for the government and other large institutions to have all eyes on each of us simultaneously. It’s not like it was in East Germany, where shady characters stood on street corners or huddled in basements, making notes and reports on the activities of their neighbors. 

Nonetheless, the proliferation of prying eyes and ears is disturbing, no matter to whom they belong. No one wants to be watched all day, every day. The idea limits should be imposed on the kind of data that can be collected, under what circumstances, how long it can be kept, and what can be done with it is highly thinkable. We need to talk about it. 

That’s only the beginning. The legislation headed to the Senate raises many interesting questions. Curiously, few of them involve freedom of expression. As much as opponents of the TikTok divestiture might like it to be so, it isn’t a question of infringing on anyone’s 1st Amendment rights. No one is talking about banning TikTok because of its content or suggesting that things that appear on the platform be banned. No, what they are saying is the app, because it’s tied into the Chinese national security apparatus, is a threat to America’s national security. 

We’ve heard that before. And when we complied with what those ringing the alarm bells the loudest wanted, we got all kinds of interesting results like the Palmer Raids, The Patriot Act, and the FISA Court. We can’t really say that any of that worked out as well as promised. 

Civil liberty concerns aside, at the debate’s core lies the following: do we want to add to the government’s existing power to break up companies or force divestitures simply because we don’t like or are frightened by who owns them?

There’s no easy answer. For every corporate entity that does something right, there are just as many doing something wrong. In many cases, that’s not so much a fact as a value judgment dependent on the attitudes of the person or persons making the evaluation. 

It doesn’t stop there. Do we trust the people who wield such power? Can we? Can they separate themselves from their partisan leanings and other self-interested concerns to be as objective as we’d want them to be if it was our firm they were charged with dismantling?

In The Federalist Papers, James Madison famously wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” That’s true, as far as it goes. America is a nation of laws administered and executed by men who, as the former president and principal author of the Constitution suggested, could not be counted on to rise to the occasion as they might be called to do. 

Humankind being what it is, several investor groups, including one led by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, emerged quickly after the House had finished voting on the TikTok bill to announce they were preparing bids to acquire TikTok from ByteDance. 

That’s not just being smart; it’s getting ahead of the curve rather than putting the cart in front of the horse. Except in one crucial way: if TikTok’s worth ultimately derives from the management team ByteDance put in place to oversee its operations, and that management team is based in China, does a successful effort to force divestiture have hidden within it the destruction of the company’s value? To put it another way, if you have to take TikTok out of China because you got China out of TikTok, do you kill the goose that lays the golden eggs? 

That’s a lot of mixed metaphors, but what do you expect in a situation as confusing as this one? There’s no clear answer, even among people who are fully conversant in the issues involved. 

Knowing what we know about how the Chinese behave regarding computer hacking and other acts of technological espionage, it makes sense to keep TikTok off of government computers and smartphones. We shouldn’t be pointing them down the pathways that lead to our secrets. It’s another thing entirely to say that no one in America can access it unless the ownership changes.

If the smart people, whoever they might be, really thought TikTok was a threat, the market would know it and respond accordingly. Instead of a ban, we’d be talking about how to finance the creation of a free world-based competitor with the same functionalities or better than the one based behind the Bamboo Curtain. 

Leaving aside the hype, the other problem – as we saw with the RICO Act and the FISA Court – is that the powers inherent in statutes and institutions like them are inherently abused no matter the best intentions of those who brought them to life. It’s not too hard to see how the arguments and authorities employed to force ByteDance to part ways with TikTok successfully could be employed in other circumstances. Then, even the threat of doing so would be enough to bring corporate leaders in line behind the agenda of whoever is sitting in the Oval Office. That’s not something most people would be comfortable with unless they have worked in the White House. 

Washington, D.C.-based columnist and commentator Peter Roff is a former senior political writer for United Press International and former U.S. News & World Report contributing editor. He can be reached at RoffColumns AT GMAIL.com and followed on social media @TheRoffDraft.

NEXT: Rep. Thomas Massie Calls TikTok Ban a ‘Trojan Horse’, Says the POTUS Will Be Granted Power to ‘Ban’ Websites Outright

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