Gongol.com Archives: April 2024

Brian Gongol

April 21, 2024

Computers and the Internet Can Congress really banish TikTok?

It's a question with two different thorny answers. One is legal: The prospect of banishing a particular company by name through legislation isn't exactly an obvious slam-dunk. It's obviously going to be an issue for the courts to decide after much tempest. ■ The other is technical: The whole point of the Internet is that it evades easy control. The lessons of the Napster era, the dark web, and the mass-marketing of virtual private networks (VPNs) demonstrate that evasion of authority is a defining characteristic rather than a niche concern of the digital world. ■ That doesn't mean the application or its owner are benign, nor that they should be trusted or even used. If the parent company isn't demonstrably and actively collecting user information for nefarious purposes, it still most certainly could be. ■ The main problem isn't the content, though there are very good reasons to be concerned about what decentralized mass-scale disinformation campaigns could achieve in adversarial hands. The central problem is the collection and ownership of user data. Chinese agencies have been after American data on the biggest scale possible. We don't have to know why they're collecting the data, how they're storing it, or how they might put it to use. The collection itself is cause enough for suspicion. ■ American authorities would be daffy to ignore the possibility of massive surveillance facilitated by tech companies based in China. That doesn't excuse xenophobic questioning or unconstitutional overreach. But it does demand exceptional scrutiny. ■ Ideally, Americans would heed the warnings voluntarily and cease using the app out of enlightened self-interest. But if that's not to be the case, then perhaps it's inevitable that the imperfect remedy of legislation will be tested. The legal and technical challenges, though, should make it evident that the work is far from over.

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