Mar 20·edited Mar 20Liked by Noah Smith

I spent 20 years in China. Americans by and large just don't "get" that there is effectively no such thing as a private company in China, at least not in sensitive sectors. TikTok will act as an arm of the Chinese state when it pleases the CCP, or it will die. Ban it.

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I highly disagree that we should ban Tik Tok. If we do we just give the government license to ban any app or information source that the government doesn’t like. It’s Tik Tok today. It can be Youtube tomorrow. I think Fox news is a propaganda outlet destroying the country. Why don’t we ban Fox? And then why not the New York Times? It’s bad enough that liberals want to regulate the internet to cleanse it of “misinformation.” To give the government discretionary power to ban entire sources of information is a horrible idea. If that’s what they do in China, then why should we do it here? Democracies are not supposed to “wield sharp power,” at least not where it undermines the liberties of their own citizens. And if Tik Tok can track us, then so what? Can’t any company track us? Can’t the NSA already listen in on our private phone calls? Would we have to start banning social media companies to fix that? We could just pass privacy laws. But I understand that’s a lot less sexy than using the administrative state as a blunt instrument to plan the public good. And we’re unanimously obsessed with using the government to do big theatrical things now. Our politics is so deranged that besides cracking down on China to protect the steel industry and curry favor with the red state voting bloc, we have to freak out about the potential indoctrination of the electorate by an app full of videos of people screaming and dancing that each last only seconds long. It is my conviction that each political party is shoring up their own incompetence and covering their ass (for votes) by competing with each other for who can pretend to talk the toughest game on China. But to compete zero sum with a peaking, mock geopolitical power, by “friendshoring” and reviving manufacturing, we just put a greater strain on our deteriorating relationship with China and encourage an increasingly brittle regime to lash out. With our economic trade war, I think we are pushing Xi to support Putin in Ukraine, and we’re also pushing him into becoming a peacemaker in the middle east. We are creating a whole new sphere of influence with our inability to rationally deal with and talk to China which is entirely self-serving for the populists in our government. It’s horrible. You praise the US for finally starting to act like a “nation state.” I think the fact that we don’t care at all about international trade law is a horrible thing, and that we have totally forgotten how dumb industrial policy is, etc. It’s a strong economy and freedom that will make the US the superior of China, a commitment to western ideals and free trade, not protectionism or national security crackdowns on the internet. Why do we want to mirror China’s policies that aren’t giving them any edge on us and which are sinking their economy, and could be pushing them towards greater aggression on the world stage? And we’ll just make our own citizens hate their government more. Our bipartisan China policy is completely hysterical and stupid.

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If we could ban TikTok and its clones it might be better for mental health.

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It's funny how the US has no problem when its culture and values are subtly spread across the world by Hollywood and the US Internet giants, but as soon as a foreign company develops similar influence, they turn French and fight the foreign influence. The right way to address this is by having a wide spectrum of different sources available and by having an educated population, and not by trying to impose a top-down content filter on a nation. It's unfortunate that even otherwise intelligent observers like Noah do not recognize that.

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I don't know - a ban for people in certain organizations(like military, or government) seems to make sense, but a complete ban? Individuals worried about CCP spying on them can simply not use Tiktok. I'd go for something on the level of a warning sign near the download button, for normal citizens.

As for the propaganda issue, I think the free-speech side has a good point as well. If we start banning stuff on the basis that it presents a biased picture, I can't imagine how many websites we'd have to shut down. Yes, the source of the bias is a lot more problematic in case of Tiktok, but fundamentally I don't think it's too different from a pro-Russian thinker writing columns on his website. It's has more influence, but that's about it.

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What's the moral basis for denying an American consumer the right to share data with a foreign country in exchange for whatever service they provide?

Or denying them the right to consume foreign propaganda?

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Banning TikTok was one of a very few issues that Trump was right about, and in general, should be part of a larger effort to throw some sharp elbows at China. They have to know that if they're going to be aggressively authoritarian bullying a-holes on the international stage, there will be consequences.

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Many Americans are so interested in what is easy to use they never consider the consequences of that use. Per Watergate, "Follow the money." Who benefits when we use a program designed and operated by people who stand against everything America is supposed to stand for? Why support nations whose leaders are openly antagonistic toward America? Why should we trust anything said by either Russia or China? To paraphrase Ronald Reagan - trust but verify. Since our computer experts can't verify what China claims, we should not use their computer parts or programs.

For the most part, America airs its dirty laundry in public. The same cannot be said about China. They bury their dirty laundry - in more ways than one. No computer part or program is so important that we should blindly use it without considering where it came from and what the potential downsides of this use may be.

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I'm surprised you didn't mention the (largely anecdotal) evidence that TikTok is intentionally pushing content to young people that is likely to negatively impact their mental health. Granted, all social media use negatively affects mental health, and it could be argued that all smartphone use does, but TikTok is clearly far worse.

If you don't believe me, look up how TikTok has caused a host of young women to develop tics. And caused a spike in self-diagnosed bipolar. Plus there's the spike in cases of self-diagnosed (and possibly self-induced) Dissociative Identity Disorder, a condition that has historically been extremely rare and which is treated by eliminating all alternate personalities; TikTok influencers are instead encouraging young people to work to develop their alternative personalities.

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Noah has supported banning TikTok for years so this is not a surprising piece. I don't have any preference either way: I'm certain that data on TikTok users is leaked to the CCP but that's not much different from what already happens on American social media platforms.

There have been several instances of private user data on American apps( Clubhouse comes to mind) ending up in foreign hands with nefarious intentions, China and Russia especially. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica voter profiling and targeting - overblown as such things are - was another such example.

So, the real problem here isn't TikTok as much as it is tightening privacy laws on social media companies. I even doubt a lot of this data is useful any way to all parties concerned. Tim Hwang had an excellent book on the subject titled Subprime Attention.

So, should TikTok be banned? Well, yea. It's only fair. But its security risk, relative to the other massive social media platforms, has been significantly misrepresented.

What I'm interested in knowing is how will the TikTok ban be enforced. Bruce Schneier, the computational security expert, wrote a lovely post on the topic a while ago and his conclusion was every possible option presented unpalatable consequences.

So, perhaps the issue here isn't so much as the political will and approval necessary to ban TikTok as it is the means by which that curtailment will be carried out. That may constitute the more important problem.

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Disclaimer: I work for TikTok in the US since 2020.

I want to point out some factual errors in below paragraph:

"Tiktok has admitted tracking journalists’ physical movements and sending the data to its Chinese parent company. But physical location is probably only the tip of the iceberg of the data TikTok can collect, which includes faceprints, voiceprints, browsing history, text messages, and pretty much anything you do on your phone."

1. "Tiktok has admitted tracking journalists’ physical movements and sending the data to its Chinese parent company" != TikTok shared data with CCP. And AFAIK, there was no prior incidents that CCP requested any data from TikTok or TikTok sent any data to CCP. By AFAIK, I meant public information. If there is anything really happened, given how easily TikTok information was leaked (and vastly misinterpreted), they would have became public information. Also, TikTok has spent more than 1 billion dollars on Project Texas (there was public report) to ensure none USDS employees can have access to US users' data.

2. "TikTok can collect, which includes faceprints, voiceprints, browsing history, text messages, and pretty much anything you do on your phone" is simply false. Both iOS and Android has done a great job in term of security, I don't think any mobile app can do this without being caught. There were so many false claims from "security experts" what TikTok did or could do. For ones I am aware of (e.g. inapp browser or Feroot report), they are either overly exaggerated, and simply false.

I am your paid subscriber and really liked your other posts. If you are interested to learn more, we can discuss.

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"But physical location is probably only the tip of the iceberg of the data TikTok can collect, which includes faceprints, voiceprints, browsing history, text messages, and pretty much anything you do on your phone"

Who is to say that if you ban TikTok another foreign company won't show up that can do this too?

Seems like the better solution is to pass laws ensuring protection of our data and their sharing across all apps, not just 1 that we dislike.

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This is just bullshit... Meta / Google / Linkdin how many more do exactly the same thing for the US so the rest of the world by this logic should ban all of them due to US spying .

US Exceptionalism incarnate

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I don't want to live in a country where the government tries to control which apps I can or cannot use; that is a violation of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, values I find extremely important. The issues would with TikTok would have to be much, much worse for me to even consider supporting banning it – it would need to be solidly, confidently, a significant existential threat to the freedom of the entirety of humanity. Issues with TikTok are not significantly worse to me than issues with the NSA spying and US corporate and social media manipulation, and I care about the world, not nation states.

> But it’s simply not clear what the U.S. derived from the arrangement other than a feeling of self-righteousness.

How about the peace of knowing that your government is not that level of tyrannical?? Some disinformation isn't nearly as scary to me as the government stooping to China's level and doing the things that make me so opposed to the CCP in the first place. Even though the existence of TikTok manipulation is risky, it is simply not worth stooping to the CCP's level in this area, in my opinion.

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This is not the take I would have expected from Level 20 Neoliberal Noah Smith. I agree, though. Even as an EFF donor, there's a difference between upholding Section 230 and letting a company controlled by a foreign nation-state track American citizens.

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Sorry, but this hysteria about TikTok is easily as absurd as the hysteria about ChinaBalloongate.



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