TikTok, Data Privacy, America, and You

James Grieco
James Grieco
Apr 2, 2024
min read
TikTok, Data Privacy, America, and You

The U.S. House of Representatives ignited the news cycle in mid-March when it put together a bill that would force TikTok owner ByteDance to sell the social media platform or face a complete ban on American shores. The House managed to draft and overwhelmingly pass the bill within days, a speed at which the American legislator rarely, if ever, moves. 

Now, in early April, the bill awaits its fate in the Senate, where the potential ban has lingered for several weeks. As President Biden has already declared he would sign the bill into law if it reaches his desk, both sides of the American political aisle now reckon with the ferocious and unexpected backlash

While I have no doubt the intense devotion Generation Z and millions of other TikTok users have to the app, the current saga we find ourselves in seems a monster made entirely of our own accord, and not one iota of that is because of China. 

The Real Issue at Play: Data Privacy

China’s role in the potential ban is straightforward enough: TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company. Despite moving servers to the U.S. within the past few years to address concerns over espionage, manipulative algorithms, and blatant propaganda on the app, American lawmakers still view TikTok’s current existence as a national security threat. This lines up with other recent actions out of Washington as well, including President Biden’s sweeping executive order “to prevent the large-scale transfer of Americans’ personal data to countries of concern and provides safeguards around other activities that can give those countries access to Americans’ sensitive data.”

The key player in this story is not a person, or a company, at all. In fact, data represents the very thing that has led us here, to a moment when a historically disliked Congress is attempting to ban a historically popular app.  

The U.S. is deeply concerned about Americans’ data, particularly sensitive data such as geolocation, biometric, and health data, falling into enemies hands. Recent posturing from politicians from both parties also indicates the legislators–both state and federal–are taking data privacy and AI seriously for the first time in, well, ever. 

Yet this newfound zeal for data privacy, as evidenced by the 13 states and counting that have passed comprehensive privacy laws within the past 16 months, has landed on TikTok for potential privacy harms that the entirety of social media is responsible for. 

As Rex Huppke derides in his reaction to the House of Representatives vote on the TikTok ban, “Since when is it ‘O.K.’ for a foreign-owned company to gather information about U.S. citizens? True patriots like me will only allow our personal data to be Hoovered up by trustworthy red-white-and-blue American companies like Amazon, Google, Twitter and Facebook.”

His sentiments only echoes what tens of thousands were and have been screaming about across the internet over the past several weeks: everyone knows how blatantly Big Tech and corporations are commodifying users, scooping up data left and right in the pursuit of the perfectly engineered dopamine debt trap, global regulations be damned

Data Privacy Hypocrisy

This is how the modern world revolves around data, and how horribly the United States has managed the problem, never publicly acknowledging or addressing that fact in the face of declining user experiences, increasing privacy harms, and a decidedly more toxic internet than even a decade ago as corporations fuel profits with negligent or outright nefarious data handling practices. 

Failing to pass a comprehensive federal privacy law when over 70% of the global population has one in place is just the tip of the iceberg for America. Allowing corporations to turn user data into a money spigot, due to both a lack of regulation and a lack of technological understanding, has soured the population, spreading a sense of learned helplessness that is the antithesis of the bright and optimistic curiosity that drove the early days of the internet.

Even as states have made progress, with over 50% of Americans now living in a state where a comprehensive data privacy law has passed, data rights awareness remains shockingly low. None of these problems exist because of a lack of caring, either. Survey after survey find that the vast majority of Americans favor privacy and want the government to do more to regulate data usage.

The potential TikTok ban–whether it goes through or not–has become the perfect storm of the U.S. needing to reckon with its mistakes. By allowing data privacy to get so unrestrained, so unchecked, the government has sapped the citizenry of its faith in the internet, the defining technological innovation of our time. For the government to step in now under the guise of national security enrages people because the problem never should have gotten this bad to begin with. 

TikTok would not be anywhere near as popular as it is today if American-owned social media companies hadn’t betrayed their users.

You and Your Data Rights

So what then, can you, as an individual, do? And not to “save” TikTok, but rather strengthen and enable the spirit of data privacy in America, the main root cause of the whole TikTok saga.

Learn about your data subject rights. The verbiage may be odd, but all it means is that every person has rights, and you should be using yours. Do not let your data sit in the hands of companies that don’t need it. Do not be caught by surprise when you see how many third parties your data has been sold to.

Here is the map of which states have laws in place that grant residents data rights, and which states will soon enter the party. If your state has a law in place, exercise your rights early and often. Creating privacy-conscious corporations will not happen overnight, but one way to ensure it happens is to put pressure on them by sending in more and more privacy requests. The more requests companies get, the more resources they need to send to privacy and compliance teams, and the higher prioritization these issues will get.

Know a company is not compliant with privacy laws or simply practices bad data handling? Don’t give them your business and let them know why. 

Data privacy is a human right and if we don’t insist on it, we will end up with weak privacy laws, no trust in business, and bans that don’t touch on the real problems. Today it’s TikTok, tomorrow it’s, well … let’s hope we never have to cross that bridge.