March 2023Data PrivacyFocus

FOCUS on Data Privacy: North America

Andrea Hebel
Managing Editor

As the West embraces a new reality of digital interconnectedness amid the rise of new social media platforms, governments are scrambling to reconcile the protection of the data privacy of their citizens with the rights of companies, all while navigating the policy and security complications of foreign tech companies. This has become especially pertinent with the rise of video sharing platform TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance. According to The New York Times, countries across the world have started initiating bans of the app over fears that the company gives the Chinese government access to sensitive user information, such as location data, and actively uses its platform to promote misinformation. 

CBS News reports that the U.S. and Canada have both recently passed new measures banning the use of TikTok on government-issued mobile devices, despite ByteDance maintaining that they do not hold user data in China or share it with the Chinese government. Nevertheless, federal employees in the U.S. have 30 days from the passage of the new measure to delete the app from their phones. The new bans in North America join similar measures that were enacted in the EU and Taiwan, and total bans of the app in India and Afghanistan. 

The New York Times adds that the federal ban comes as two dozen states have already enacted similar restrictions for government devices. Numerous bills in Congress have sought to either outright ban or give President Biden the authority to terminate use of the app for the entire country. 

Though numerous bills of this type have been in the works for months, recent efforts have been intensified following meetings between congressional investigators and a former TikTok employee, who shared his fears that efforts by the app to protect U.S. data are insufficient and flawed, according to The Washington Post. ByteDance has undergone a costly restructuring plan in an attempt to address privacy concerns and appease Washington lawmakers, however, the whistleblower claims that these changes do not go deep enough.

Canadian lawmakers have also launched an investigation into whether TikTok’s data collection methods are in line with Canadian privacy laws, according to Reuters. This investigation comes as Sino-Canadian relations are already tense, following recent accusations of Chinese efforts to influence Canadian elections and increased air surveillance since the discovery of several unidentified flying object over North American airspace.

Despite claims that TikTok’s Chinese ownership poses a threat to data privacy and security, governments singling-out of TikTok has raised questions from users as to what sets ByteDance apart from other social media platforms that also collect copious amounts of user data. BBC News continues that many users, especially young people, see little need for a ban. Many students who attend colleges that have banned the use of TikTok on campus Wi-Fi simply circumnavigate it by using a VPN and fail to see how TikTok differs from other social media networks. Though support for a ban has risen in popularity amongst older populations, reaching above 50 percent, Gen Z has largely shrugged at the ban.

The concept of banning TikTok, or any other platform, also raises questions about the balance between protecting first amendment rights and protecting consumers. Many rights organizations are strongly condemning the prospect of a ban. The ACLU published an open letter urging Congress to vote no on the bill, arguing that banning an entire platform would be unnecessary censorship of the American people and that banning an app simply because it is Chinese in origin is a violation of the Berman Amendment. 

ByteDance is reportedly exploring options to sell TikTok to a U.S.-based company to avoid a ban, should its current plans fail to satisfy lawmakers, according to Forbes. However, even U.S.-based social media companies, such as Meta, have dubious records on data protection, as explained by The Washington Post. The balance between the protection of the first amendment rights of citizens to use the apps and platforms of their choice, and the protection of those same citizens from having their data used in ways that threatens their privacy and security, is a balance that governments have yet to figure out.

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