How Should To Think About The TikTok Ban? Is It Worthwhile? Why?

Once again, there is A LOT of yelling and screaming and plenty of actual disagreement but we have repeatedly noted that both major US parties are more united than either the media or their rhetoric would have you believe.

Spending is big area of commonality. If both ends of the political spectrum believe in spending (and borrowing against) tax payer money with complete abandon then what are we really voting on? Which lobbyists our side prefers? The color of the ties in the press conference?

Our political parties are not just united in a willingness to spend a lot of money we don't have and brag about the (possibly ephemeral) benefits. They are also coming together in a vicious way to target a Chinese social media phenomenon: TikTok.

It is true that at the moment former President Donald Trump has suddenly decided he quite likes TikTok. He says it is because he doesn't want Facebook (Meta) to acquire more power and reach (which is a decent argument!) but likely has more to do with the fact that he does very well on the platform and gets lots and lots of free publicity and advertising

Still, the former President was against TikTok before he was in favor of it. In fact, he was hugely opposed as early as 2017 and famously tried to ban it in 2019. This seems to be to his credit?! He was certainly an early mover on a subject that suddenly has near universal agreement in a town and a country where no one can agree on anything.

Anyway, once you have been in favor of something before you were against it you can easily be in favor again. As John Kerry never tires of showing us, once a flip-flopper, always a flip flopper.

Regardless, the important thing is that broad swathes of the political spectrum have decided TikTok must go and President Biden has said he will sign a bill if one reaches his desk.

What does this mean? Other than the fact that we might have fewer badly coordinated lip syncing dancing videos in our future.

There are a few questions:

Will we actually ban a Chinese app?

It is hard to know. There are a ton of articles analyzing why can't it happen and how the Senate won't take it up and even if it does that TikTok will sue and might likely win.

That seems irrelevant. It might take some time but if there is bipartisan political agreement on something then even in the chaos of a second Trump Presidency, you would suspect it will get done.

But the biggest question seems to get lost which is:

Should we ban the app?

Our answer would be: not if it is done this way.

The point isn't just whether or not we should allow a Chinese technology company to have access to a considerable chunk of the attention of over 170 million Americans (and we would agree we likely shouldn't). We also want to be very, very careful about outright banning a company for ephemeral "reasons."

This all might feel fun now but very quickly we might not like the idea that we are handing some capricious and often very unserious (and dare we say financially incentivized) politicians, policymakers and regulators, the power to ban companies - even nasty, dangerous Chinese ones.

The problem is that today's darling can become tomorrow's villain, especially when different sides of the political spectrum can win elections and carry out campaigns of retribution.

Such a campaign won't necessarily just apply to Chinese (or US) companies or even companies period. What about other tools and services that many people use that the state might find inconvenient?

Whether it be President Trump's dislike of Meta or President Biden's dislike of "Big Tech monopolies" we could be quietly setting a very troubling precedent with a legitimate Chinese case.

Banning stuff can feel great and especially when there are likely negative effects from TikTok's power and reach and there are certainly legitimate questions about China's use but better evidence and perhaps even some sort of a due process might be worth it before we give the state the power to ban a private entity.

So, what will actually happen?

We suspect not much until after the election.

When it comes to TikTok itself and the narrow issue of its continued existence, the Chinese psyop has been fun but it is slowly coming to an end. It is amazing that it has lasted this long and it would be not just nice but necessary to try and uncover some real actual law breaking before banning the company.

It is still very unclear what that might even look like and we should probably have far better answers than: China bad.

That is actually especially the case if China is really a bad actor.

For now all the possible solutions seems unworkable and also highly politicized.

It is very unlikely TikTok can be bought and even if it could, that the Chinese government would let its most valuable asset - the algorithms that make it so addictive - ever leave the People's Republic. They have already declared it a "state asset" under the new export control law.

That raises the first question which is, if the company isn't controlled in anyway by the Chinese state then why is there such sensitivity to letting its technology possibly be sold to a third party? But obviously we won't hold our breathe for a good answer here.

For the US perspective, we would likely have antitrust concerns with any possible buyer.

And on and on it goes.

But all the focus seems to be the "will they/won't they" political aspect of all this rather than the very worrying "should they/in this manner" part.

That is regrettable even before we get to the brutal reality that Sinophobia will likely only grow as a theme this election year. Attacking foreigners for our own failings and blaming one particular social media app for the very complex problems and tough questions that social media has brought to our society seem both sad and depressingly familiar for those who know their political history.

We continue to live in the Great Forgetting.


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