On March 13, the U.S. House of Representatives made international headlines when it gave the green light on a bipartisan bill to force ByteDance, the majority owner of TikTok, to divest or face a nationwide ban in the United States. Invoking “national security,” officials expressed two fears: that TikTok will hand data on Americans to the Chinese government, and that the Chinese government will use its algorithm to influence American politics. To the chagrin of teenagers and influencers hooked on the app, the ban has support from nearly half of America.

TikTok claims the charges are baseless, highlighting its efforts to move data to the American-owned Oracle cloud. U.S. investors already own a great deal of its shares and have seats on its board, the company adds.

This is not a new debate. TikTok has been in America’s crosshairs for several years, starting with Donald Trump’s advocacy of a ban in 2020 (a position he now opposes). Last year, the federal government and several states banned TikTok on government devices. Media pundits have mixed opinions about whether or not the current bill will go through the Senate.

Tech “left” critics of the bill have some valid points. They state that a ban on national security grounds is bunk, and would violate the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens. They also argue that China could always just hoover up data about Americans from third party data brokers, and so a more general privacy bill with teeth is the best option.

While there is no evidence that the Chinese government is vacuuming up user data from TikTok, we do have evidence that the U.S. government, led by the NSA, spies on the world’s social media feeds.

As far as political influence goes, some advocates of the ban argue that TikTok boosts pro-Palestinian content. This not only ignores the possibility, made by TikTok itself, that American teenagers are simply pro-Palestine, but elides the fact that other social media platforms, in particular Facebook, have a long record of suppressing and censoring pro-Palestinian content. In 2022, Meta conceded that Facebook and Instagram had violated the free speech rights of Palestinian users and unevenly enforced its rules during Israel’s May 2021 assault on the Gaza Strip.

But there are other issues in the TikTok debate that have not received the proper attention, especially from the mainstream tech “left” community.

First, while there is no evidence that the Chinese government is vacuuming up user data from TikTok, we do have evidence that the U.S. government, led by the National Security Agency, spies on the world’s social media feeds. Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks demonstrated that the NSA has direct access to the data of Big Tech giants, including Facebook (since renamed Meta) and YouTube. Perhaps there are more.

This is a critical point. When I visited the Middle East a few years ago to train social justice advocates on digital self-defense and surveillance, the audience was deeply concerned about protecting themselves from the NSA and CIA. If they fall out of favor with Uncle Sam, they face bombs, murder, torture and imprisonment.

For all the hubbub around the disclosure of the NSA surveillance a decade ago, it is apparently no longer a concern for Americans. My sense is that the U.S. intelligentsia cares little about its own government’s surveillance because they don’t feel personally threatened. One would think this rank hypocrisy would appear in the larger debate, but it’s hardly anywhere to be found.

Second, American tech “critics” should be emphasizing the problem of American social media ownership. In 2023, TikTok generated $16 billion in revenue. By contrast, Meta alone generated $134 billion, while YouTube took in $31.5 billion.

A legal move to force ByteDance to sell off TikTok itself is an act of American economic imperialism.

TikTok is one of a few sizable Chinese corporations with substantial market share outside of mainland China. But for U.S. elites, it’s not enough to dominate the global digital economy. They want to “contain” China to its natural place — a supply of cheap labor to American corporations and consumers.

A legal move to force ByteDance to sell off TikTok itself is an act of American economic imperialism. Among the U.S. investors lining up to invest are former Trump Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Rumble CEO Chris Pavloski and former Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.

There is a way forward. As I previously detailed at Truthdig, one solution is to push through legislation to decentralize the social media landscape. This would require social media networks to interoperate — meaning a user of one platform can interact with a user in another platform — so that many social networks can be created and connect to each other. We already have a functional prototype in place, called the Fediverse, where people can create their own social networks. Users can then set their own content moderation rules, which keeps centralized platforms from being able to dictate which content is censored and which posts are boosted or suppressed across new feeds. Public posts are still subject to third party data collection (and therefore surveillance) but there are good options to secure private posts.

There is a move towards this direction in the EU, via the Digital Markets Act (DMA), and in the U.S. via the ACCESS Act; both mandate social media interoperability. But these laws have serious problems. Only the giant networks have to interoperate, and they envision a capitalist model where the small networks aren’t forced to interoperate and will be competing with each other, where they will compete to concentrate the market and fatten the pockets of the owners and shareholders.

A better model, which I outlined at Truthdig and elsewhere, would mandate fully open sourced platform software (so communities can control how the network features and rules); ban forced advertising; and subsidize the development and maintenance of networks as well as content moderation. TikTok and the rest of Big Social Media would dissolve into an ecosystem of thousands of social media networks. But that would also entail destroying American tech hegemony, an admittedly unlikely outcome without strong grassroots pressure.

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