Don’t Ban TikTok, Do This Instead

Article written by Amy Patterson, EFA board member and #NotMyDebt coordinator.

TikTok has faced criticism and calls for bans due to concerns over security and privacy practices, which are often exaggerated or misunderstood.

Rather than vilifying specific apps, we should focus on empowering people with robust privacy legislation, education about technical concepts, and promoting transparency and accountability from tech companies. This would enable people to make informed decisions about their privacy and use of technology, no matter where it’s from.

If practices used by one app are enough to justify a ban, then the practices should be banned for all apps.

Moral Panic Over TikTok

TikTok is a popular social media app that people describe as a powerful source of community and education. However, the app has also faced criticism from politicians and media outlets who have raised concerns about its security and privacy practices. These concerns have led to calls for TikTok bans in various countries, including Australia.

The language used when discussing TikTok bans is often hyperbolic, with words like ‘dangerous’, ‘threatening’, and ‘sinister’ used to suggest that TikTok is a tool of malevolent foreign actors. However, these concerns are often based on misunderstandings or exaggerations of the actual risks posed by TikTok relative to other social media platforms, and meet many of the criteria of a moral panic.

Technical Confusion

One of the concerns raised about TikTok is its access to the clipboard on people’s devices. People have been encouraged in media reporting by outlets such as 60 Minutes to interpret this as a sign that TikTok is stealing their data, when in fact, this is a common permission that many apps require in order to function properly.

App permissioning is a technical concept that is often misunderstood by the general public, and this knowledge gap is frequently exploited by rogue apps and malware. People who don’t know that permissioning is normal and necessary for an app to function also don’t know what permissions they really should be worried about, and are less able to keep themselves safe.

Why This One App?

It’s important to note that TikTok is not the only social media platform that has faced scrutiny over security and privacy concerns. For example, Facebook has been criticised for its handling of people’s data, most notably during the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Snapchat has been accused of exposing user location data. However, the language used to discuss these issues is typically different from the language used to discuss TikTok, and neither app has faced a ban.

When Facebook or Snapchat faces criticism, the focus is often on specific features or policies that may put people at risk. The language used is typically more technical, and the discussion is centred on how the company can improve its practices in order to better protect people. In contrast, when TikTok faces criticism, the language used is often more sensational, with words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘sinister’ being deployed. The discussion is less about specific practices or policies and more about the supposed threat that TikTok poses as an entity.

Help People to Help Themselves

Instead of calling for outright bans or vilifying a specific app, we should focus on empowering people to manage their own privacy and make informed decisions about how they use technology. This means educating the public about app permissioning, wifi security, and other relevant matters.

Systemic change from the industry is also needed, starting with more user-friendly terms of service agreements that are written in plain language and provide clear explanations of data collection and usage. And when industry fails to do what’s right, people should be empowered to take action to fix it. We shouldn’t have to wait for the government to ban things before we can decide for ourselves, individually and collectively, what sort of society we want to have.

From the government, we a commitment to ensuring greater transparency and accountability from tech companies, including requirements for disclosing more information about data collection and sharing practices, as well as stronger privacy protections and regulations to ensure responsible handling of people’s data. We need principles-based regulations that support us to help ourselves, not individual and selective bans.

Do This Instead

Ultimately, empowering people to manage their own privacy requires a combination of education and regulation. We need to educate our communities about technical concepts and the risks involved in using technology, while also developing policies and regulations that promote privacy, transparency, accountability, and user control.

Rather than allowing ourselves to be swept up in a moral panic about one specific app, we need a clear-eyed understanding of the technology and the risks involved. By educating the public about technical concepts and promoting transparency and accountability from tech companies, we can empower people to manage their own privacy and make informed decisions about how they use technology.

Feeling generous? Donate to Electronic Frontiers Australia and support us in our mission to empower people to make informed decisions about their privacy and use of technology.

Image credit: Unsplash

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