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Ramesh Srinivasan: TikTok Crackdown, Fueled by Anti-China Sentiment, Misses Real Threat of Big Tech

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In a rare bipartisan effort, the U.S. House overwhelmingly passed a bill Wednesday requiring TikTok to be sold by its China-based owner, ByteDance, or face a ban throughout the United States. Backers claim the popular social media app could give the Chinese government access to U.S. residents’ personal data and potentially affect the 2024 elections. The fight over TikTok comes at a time of rising anti-China rhetoric in both major parties, as well as alarm among conservatives that content supportive of Palestinian rights and critical of Israel is popular with many young users of the app. The fate of the TikTok legislation now rests in the Senate, and President Joe Biden says he will sign it into law if it reaches his desk. Former President Donald Trump, who tried to crack down on TikTok while in office, now opposes the effort. “It is singling out TikTok and China without any evidence whatsoever that they are engaging in any nefarious or spying activity,” Ramesh Srinivasan, professor of information studies at UCLA, says of the legislation. “What we need is expansive, comprehensive digital rights legislation that really applies to every social media company and gives Americans power over their own data.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In a rare show of bipartisanship, House lawmakers overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to force the social media app TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to either sell the app or face a ban in the United States.

REP. BETH VAN DUYNE: On this vote, the yeas are 352, the nays are 65, one present. Two-thirds being in the affirmative, the rules are suspended. The bill is passed.

AMY GOODMAN: TikTok has more than 170 million users in the United States alone, the largest TikTok audience in the world. This is Republican — this is Congressmember Raja Krishnamoorthi, but first, Republican Mike Gallagher.

REP. MIKE GALLAGHER: TikTok is a threat to our national security because it is owned by ByteDance, which does the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party. … This bill, therefore, forces TikTok to break up with the Chinese Communist Party. It does not apply to American companies.

REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI: Unfortunately, when TikTok has appeared before Congress, whether it’s before the House Energy and Commerce Committee or otherwise, it has not been candid, my friends. It has not been candid. First, TikTok said its data is not accessible to China-based ByteDance employees. False. China-based employees routinely access this data.

AMY GOODMAN: Last voice is Democrat Congress — the Democratic Congressmember Raja Krishnamoorthi.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The bill that could lead to a TikTok ban was also backed by Democrats. This is House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

MINORITY LEADER HAKEEM JEFFRIES: I don’t support a ban on TikTok. The legislation did not ban TikTok. It’s simply a divestiture of TikTok so that this social media platform can be owned by an American company that would protect the data and the privacy of the American consumer from malignant foreign interests like the Chinese Communist Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson Wednesday said he’ll, quote, “push” for the Senate to approve the bill, which President Joe Biden has said he would sign. But other Republicans oppose the bill. This is Georgia Congressmember Marjorie Taylor Greene.

REP. MARJORIE TAYLOR GREENE: There are dangers that lie ahead in this. This is really about controlling Americans’ data. And if we cared about Americans’ data, then we would stop the sale of Americans’ data universally, not just with China.

AMY GOODMAN: The bill is the greatest threat to TikTok since the Trump administration, when Trump tried to implement a TikTok crackdown, that was struck down in the federal courts. But he did flip his position, Trump did, last week after he met with the billionaire investor, GOP megadonor Jeff Yass, who has a 15% stake in TikTok’s parent company, has spent a fortune paying for lobbyists to preserve TikTok.

Meanwhile, rights groups like the ACLU say such a ban would violate the right to free speech.

For more, we’re joined by Ramesh Srinivasan, professor of information studies at UCLA, host of the podcast Utopias, author of Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow, joining us from Oaxaca, Mexico.

Ramesh, thanks so much for being back with us. We only have a few minutes. You do not approve of this ban. Can you talk about your concerns with it?

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Absolutely not. It’s disenfranchising to many young people in the United States. It is alienating to them. And it is singling out TikTok and China without any evidence whatsoever that they are engaging in any nefarious or spying activity or are any more extreme in their algorithms and their ways in which they polarize American users than any of the Big Tech companies, you know, which we’ve discussed before. So, it’s absurd and it’s theatrical for people like Mark Zuckerberg, etc., to be paraded in front of Congress multiple times, and even publicly shamed, while the actual legislation that takes roots is one that singles out TikTok, primarily because it’s a Chinese company, and possibly because it’s so prominent amongst Americans and young people in general in this country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Ramesh, could you talk about how this fits into the way that other countries have responded to TikTok? India was the first one to ban it. And when India did, it had the highest number of TikTok users in the world. And the fact that so many European governments, the EU, Britain and other countries, Australia, as well, Canada have placed severe restrictions on the use of TikTok on their private mobile devices? Have they done the same thing for Facebook or Twitter, now X?

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: I mean, in the Indian case, it seemed to play directly to geopolitical tensions with China. China is being set up, as you all report, all the time, as some sort of antagonist, a sort of folly for whatever actions the state would wish to take at this point. That does nothing good to deal with the real issues. If we look at most abuses that Big Tech corporations, and specifically social media platforms, have laid upon the world, we’re primarily talking about companies like Facebook, Google and so on. So, there’s really little to no evidence of this. It’s incredible that a bipartisan group of lawmakers would want to take a major instrument of free speech, but also of conversation and discussion, especially amongst young people, who feel so, again, alienated and out of touch with the political apparatuses of the United States, to just sort of take them off the platform altogether. There’s really no evidence to back that up. What we need is expansive, comprehensive digital rights legislation that really applies to every social media company and gives Americans power over their own data.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, one of the things that Trump said — I mean, he switched his position after meeting with the billionaire TikTok investor, and so he’s now against the ban. But he said, you know, it will give more power to what he calls the enemy of the people, Facebook.


AMY GOODMAN: But, in fact, talk about that and how it then privileges U.S. and other companies, but they still can invade the privacy of people, sell off all of our data, and what exactly a privacy bill would look like that you, Professor Srinivasan, would approve of.

RAMESH SRINIVASAN: Thank you for asking that question. So, it’s politically astute for Trump, and it’s sort of such a strange and surreal world, as Mehdi Hasan was just discussing with you all, when we see sort of right-wingers take on — I wouldn’t really say antiwar positions, but more isolationist positions. Trump recognizes that younger people are on this platform, and he recognizes that now with more and more alienated young people, that he could potentially gain their support. Facebook, in particular, but many Big Tech platforms have committed repeated abuses around the world, from labor practices to the hiring of exploited content moderators, to mass-scale disinformation that has been directly tied to genocides in other parts of the world, to support of authoritarian leaders and so on. So, Trump’s critique of Facebook is merely based upon it not supporting his voice writ large all the time and the extreme content that he always puts out.

But what we really need is to recognize that everything we do in our lives — and this is not just true in the United States or here in Oaxaca, Mexico, but all around the world — almost everything we do is turned into data, into what we call digital footprints. But that data is being harvested by private corporations and states, right? Basically everybody but ourselves. It’s basically a taking away of democratic power. So what we need to do is to really have power ourselves and have constituencies have power over controlling what data is being collected about us, how it’s being retained, how it’s being aggregated, how it’s being bought and sold.

And what we really need is expansive legislation, again, that deals with the economic outcomes of digital rights. You know, we need to support data unions, paying people so people have even equity in data-grabbing corporations. Note: Many of these corporations started on the backs of an internet that all of us paid for, American taxpayers, and use our roads, our infrastructures, without paying taxes. So what we need are economic rights. We need personal rights, so we control what is datafied about us. We need to ask big questions about what should not be datafied and what should not be in the hands of these shady corporations, recognizing that our data are bought and sold, and that can be very, very much a violation of free competition. We’ve seen a lot of Federal Trade Commission acts.

And, basically, what this has been doing is to wield us. It’s influencing our behavior. It’s influencing our lives. It’s constructing our consumption. It’s even constructing our sense of desire. And as we’ve talked about, it’s reinforcing discrimination through discriminatory algorithms and discriminatory practices. So, what we need are rights-based legislation that are not just about individual rights or privacy, but really bleed into the question of the economic rights we all have and need to have around the planet in our digital lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us, Ramesh Srinivasan, professor of information studies at UCLA, host of the podcast Utopias, author of Beyond the Valley, speaking to us from Oaxaca, Mexico. A hilarious side note is so many young people were calling into Congress saying, “What’s Congress? What’s a senator?” because TikTok said they should call. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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