Close

TECH CORNER

Should we cancel TikTok?

Complaints range from violations of moral customs to data privacy

In Summary

• It has provided an entertaining way to kill time and spread smiles amid pandemic

• However, liberties taken and China's overly surveilling nature have raised eyebrows

Silhouette of a man using the short-form mobile videos app
Silhouette of a man using the short-form mobile videos app
Image: COURTESY

TikTok, which has taken the world by storm, especially during this global pandemic, is a social media platform created under the premise that dance challenges and lip-syncing are cool things we all need to do to secure a place at the cool kids’ table.

For most, it has provided an entertaining way to kill time and spread some smiles during these uncertain times of the pandemic. However, some individuals and governments like India and the US are becoming apprehensive about it.

Earlier this year, a bill was introduced in the US Senate that seeks to prohibit from downloading or using TikTok, or any successor application from the developer (ByteDance), on any device issued by the federal government or a government corporation, with the exception of specified activities (e.g., cybersecurity research).

Those it wants barred are employees and officers of the United States, Members of Congress, congressional employees and officers and employees of government corporations.

In short, what this Bill seeks to do is ban the downloading and use of TikTok on federal government devices. This would not ban the use of TikTok or similar platforms by its developer in the entire US.  

WHY CANCEL IT? 

Depends on how you see your glass of water. India’s concerns about TikTok have mostly been grounded in violations by its users that go against the country’s moral and legal customs.

With regards to the US, the apprehension regarding TikTok is mostly about data privacy. The main policy argument behind the US Senate Bill is that TikTok’s developer, being a company incorporated in China, (like most Chinese incorporated companies) has strong ties with the Chinese government, which makes it easily capable of being manipulated and used by the Chinese government, if need be.

The People’s Republic of China has endured years of allegations as being too overly surveilling on its citizenry as well as other governments. Like most apps and social media sites, TikTok is known to collect information on its users. This includes information on its millions of US users, some of whom might hold federal offices or employment.

It is alleged that this information could become a potential security risk if it got into the hands of the Chinese government, which would not be unheard of, especially for a company incorporated in China.

On the other hand, TikTok, like most social media platforms, openly articulates its privacy policies on its terms of use, requesting for consent and further stating the type of information it collects. This includes network activity information, such as the IP address, geolocation-related data, browsing and search history, cookies as well as third-party social network providers, and technical and behavioural information about its users' use of the platform.

These might seem like harmless information that is collected daily on most if not all social media platforms. However, TikTok’s unique position sets it apart as the question of who else other than the company (the People’s Republic of China, maybe?) can access this vital personal data of individuals.

Additionally, despite the openness on the type of data TikTok and other social media platforms collect, there has always been a fear that there is much more that is collected that is left unsaid and is unnecessary for the functioning of the platforms. If there is anything the Cambridge Analytica scandal taught the world, it is how valuable such personal data is.

A CURE-ALL?

Despite the measures TikTok and the rest are taking to ensure they meet the public expectation of (data) privacy, the big question remains how effectively this is achieved.

A stronger and more uniform legal framework regarding how users’ personal data is collected, stored, disseminated and protected by such platforms would be a cure-all. As we charter deeper and deeper into technology and data mining and sharing, one can only pray that the laws keep up as well.

Despite all this, something tells me that if any country was to set up legal restrictions or policies for the use of TikTok or any other Chinese-incorporated companies for fear of data privacy concerns, then African countries, especially Kenya, would not be on that list.

If you look around the entire continent, African countries have become extremely fond of China lately. And if there is anything we have learnt as Africans growing up in African households, it is that one simply does not bite the hand that feeds them.

Allan Tuli is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, based in Boston, Massachusetts.