Thursday, August 13, 2020

TikTok dust up

This week's Goodfellows conversation was a bit more contentious than usual. The most interesting part, I think, is our little dust-up over TikTok, following Niall's Bloomberg commentary.

As in the rest of this series I am the skeptic of jumping in to Cold War II -- or at least against lashing out against all things China without an overall strategy. So I pushed hard on my colleagues -- Be specific. Just exactly what is the danger you fear about allowing a Chinese social media company to operate in the U.S?

Let us remember TikTok is a private company, not a direct arm of the Chinese Communist Party. It loudly says it keeps data private and locates that data outside China. Certainly, one could and should ask for long lists of assurances on data privacy to be allowed to operate in the US. Yes, under Chinese law, the Chinese government can demand data. And then we'll see what happens. But let us not confuse the facts on the ground as they are.

But admitting all that, be specific. Exactly what is the danger to US national security if the Chinese Communist Party gets TikToks data that finds Suzie Derkins really likes fluffy cat videos? What is special about Chinese ownership that makes TikTok super-dangerous? 

Judge for yourself, as it is unfair for me to post too many late hits at my colleagues' responses, but I remain unconvinced. Sure, 40 years from now Suzie might be a Supreme Court nominee and China might release an embarrassing video from her teenage years. But China can archive Reels or twitter or YouTube just as easily.

Many other answers seemed to me to veer off to other issues. Niall thinks TikTok is like crack cocaine, addictive to young and feeble minds, because it has AI algorithms that feed what you want to read. OK, but that has nothing to do with China and national security. Reels will be just as bad. HR is back to countering China's quest for "economic dominance." But I guess that means cutting off all Chinese companies, and we've had the argument before whether strategic mercantilism or innovation is the right answer there.

The argument broadened to one of general freedom of speech and regulation of the internet. Niall is still worried about all the fake news, and thinks that by regulating internet platforms as publishers all will be well. I notice current publishers are full of fake news too, and that the internet allows much more freedom to respond, and provide a counter-narrative. There is a bottom line, I think, whether one trusts people with freedom of speech and counter-speech, or some hope that some regulatory system, either top-down (which Niall disavows) or through the legal system, being able to sue publishers for wrong stories, will stem fake news and protect people from their feeble-mindedness. It's a second-best world -- I notice all the gatekeepers are just as feeble minded, and trust caveat emptor a lot more, I think, than my colleagues. Facebook's idea that all postings on covid-19 must conform to current CDC or WHO guidelines, for example, is laughable. The robust and acrimonious debate over policy in the current crisis has been enormously beneficial.

I do think traditional limitations on free speech are allowable, of course. Posting on Facebook "the cops are busy tonight, everybody meet at the Nike store on N. Michigan avenue," as apparently happened in Chicago last weekend, falls under the crying fire in a crowded theater exemption to free speech.

I won't prejudice the conversation further. We will surely return to these issues.


  1. I think the fear of TikTok is just an extension of the amorphous fear of Facebook/Twitter et al. These companies Have Data About People and Control What People See. The political class sees Having Data as the exclusive right of government and Controlling The Narrative as fundamental to being able to rule. They ultimately tolerate Facebook and Twitter because they are confident they can 'regulate' them and maintain some control. A non-American company though cannot be regulated, so they only option is to stop it cold. In all cases though, it's ultimately a fear of loosing control of the narrative.

    Note, I don't mean for any of this to come off conspiratorial, just that the reason that nobody who has fear of these companies can quite pinpoint a specific fear is that the fear is more of a general loss of narrative control, driven by the self-interest of people who who's job it is to propagate a narrative (whether it be policy or political or whatever)

    1. yes, but the answer to that is a horizontal regulation, maybe inspired by the classical audio-video media, and adapted to the digital realm: regulated access for kids, rules for add-displying, use/interdiction of some UI/UX practices that can be documented as dangerous, etc

  2. Many Chinese SNS apps have notorious fame as they terribly misinform users by spreading news & videos in favor of their authoritarian regime. Collecting user's data might help them target certain groups.

  3. I watched GoodFellows.I thought about points Niall and H.R. made vis-a-vis yours. H.R. is a soldier trained to to assess risk "in theater." My view leans more toward yours. If you eliminate or severely restrict Tic Toc, a replicant will emerge. Is Tic Toc or China's accumulation of information more of a problem than say the Romanian town of Ramnicu Valcea, alternatively known as "Hackerville?" The town's primary business is cyber crime and, from reports, business is booming. Authorities, globally, are struggling to keep up. As for FB. I see this as regulatory capture FB could use to seek rents and restrict competition. I enjoyed the spirited debate. Your patience and civility when listening to opposing POV is commendable. How would China weaponize purloined information? If they are too aggressive, don't they risk their assets being frozen in targeted countries? It seems private cyber security has an incentive to combat these problems.

  4. Interfering with trade and investment of countries that are members of the WTO is too easy and tempting for US foreign policy makers. This behavior looks like a cheap way to punish regimes that are not liked by them. Yet, it is incredibly expensive. Makes commercial agreements with the US much less desirable, and of course, they can be retaliated against. Moreover, they can not possibly be effective except perhaps against small countries.

  5. John: As much as I love and respect you. I am afraid that you are looking at a very new and different world with paradigms that belong to a world that has vanished.

    China is not America with chopsticks and strange characters instead of letters. It is a different world and a different mentality. If you want to see what your ideas lead to with China look at the NBA.

    No American who believes in the tenets of government set forth in out founding documents can be anything but appalled by the way Beijing has treated the people of Hong Kong. Yet when an officer of an NBA team expressed support of the people of Hong Kong, the NBA, at the urging of China condemned him and forced him to recant. LeBron James, who wants to be known as a warrior for social justice in the Untied States, felt compelled to destroy his own credibility by defending the Chinese regime.

    Tik-Tok is the the thin edge of the wedge. China will use social media apps, Huawei, and what ever other leverage they can to monitor Americans and will use our economic dependence on them to force us to endorse their numerous depredations on their own people and on other countries.

    The way to maintain our independence from China and their horrid regime is to rigorously separate ourselves from them. It may be glorious to be rich, but it is more noble to be free.

    To that end, we must totally disengage from China. All American investment is Chinese enterprises must be written off and all income from that quarter must be taxed punitively. All Chinese investment in the US must be rigorously monitored and steeply taxed.

    I fully acknowledge that we will be less wealthy if we take the steps we need to take to separate ourselves from China. But, we will be better off because we will retain our dignity and self-respect.

    I am not advocating a "new cold war". I am advocating self defense against an arrogant and implacable foe.

  6. Just a technical side note here. It took me five clicks to get to a screen where I could download the show as an mp3 to my phone. It really ought to be simpler.

  7. The always smart John Cochrane is probably right on the specifics, but wrong in general, on TikTok.

    OK, China is putting millions of citizens into concentration camps, and recently arrested the publisher of a newspaper in Hong Kong on trumped up charges, among other accelerating oppressions too numerous to even catalog.

    At this point, it looks like trade, and the Apples, the Disneys, the BlackRocks, the Walmarts and the No Balls Associations (NBA) are mere enablers of the Beijing-China Communist Party. Also, every large company in China is controlled by the CCP, if not through voting shares and board seats, then through internal CCP committees. TikTok too.

    A physical war with China is unthinkable. Jawboning is obviously futile.

    That leaves trade sanctions, which may or may not work. Some people think trade sanctions worked to help end apartheid in South Africa. The US applies trade sanctions on Iran.

    A gloomy thought: If five years I said, "China will soon put three million people into concentration camps and jail publishers of newspapers in Hong Kong" I would have been dismissed.

    So...what do we expect from China in five years hence? The trends are all bad.

    Another sad thought: Evidently even the Chinapologists are resigned on the Beijing/CCP. Jimmy Lai has be arrested and handcuffed and paraded out of the building, and 200 official gunsels rifle through his newspaper HQ.

    Hardy a peep in the West. Resignation. No one pretends China is liberalizing anymore. Everyone knows Beijing is getting worse, seemingly nearly on a daily basis.

    I am uncomfortable with a do-nothing policy on China.

    Even worse, China money is warping leading US institutions. Think NBA.

  8. I don't need to make the moral and ethical argument about disengaging with China. We all know the argument. So I'll make the practical one. Every Chinese company is directly or indirectly controlled by the CCP. There are many technical experts who have looked at TikTok and declared it as massive spyware. (it accesses your mic even when you are not recording, all the media on your phone, your clipboard,...). Do you want the CCP to have a listening device in every household in the US? How can you be so naive. Indeed China doesn't care about Suzie Derkins and her cat or if she becomes a judge in 20 years. But there are many other households they do care about. You don't have to USE the app to be a target, just someone in your household does. And if you believe their assurances about protecting your privacy - I don't even know what to say to that. What else would they possibly say? "The CCP could force us to hand over data at any time and we would have to do it."

  9. The only "personal information" that really worries me is the one storaged in the IRS servers.

    Sure, the chinese government would be very carefully analizing the fitness of the american people (as revealed thru their dancing skills shown in Tik Tok) in order to decide when to invade the american soil ... and also where to start the invasion (the state with the highest percentage of overwheight people with no dancing skills being an obvious candidate).

    You put together the words "data", "AI", "social media" and "private" and governments and other "feeble minds" sure start to tremble ... the Commissioner for Competition at the EU to beggin with.

    After careful consideration, I am still far more worried about the IRS thing, though.

  10. If allow CCP controlled China to go on growing ten more years, the whole western civilization would be the dying frog in warm water--too late to fight back. It's naive to believe there are any private businesses in China. They all serve the CCP's mission to dominate and dictate the whole world. These "private businesses" corrupted so many American elites. Obama administration's China policy was actually drafted by Beijing. The recent actions on TikTok and Wechat is the baby step. The long term goal is to starve the CCP.

  11. Add on (sorry):

    Look, we all believe in free markets. In general, free markets result in higher living standards and, well, more freedom.

    But even classic economists know that free markets don't handle certain externalities well. Pollution is a prime example. Public health is another (should someone with a contagious lethal infection be able to conduct business freely?).

    Then we come to tougher areas, such as trade with oppressive and imperialistic dictatorships.

    The case for "free trade" (which was never "free" anyway) with China has become thinner and thinner.

    Millions in concentration camps and Jimmy Lai arrested and handcuffed, while 200 Beijing gunsels rifle through Apple Daily HQ? La-dee-dah?

    Worse, US multinationals going mute, and lobbying for good relations with Beijing/CCP.

    Yes, I love free markets. But the river Rubicon has been passed. The Beijing/CCP is not going to change. The Western nations need to begin a long migration out of China. There are plenty of other countries to trade with.

    China needs to do a Japan or S Korea, and go Western.

    1. The "one child policy" was even worse and was there for everybody to see for a long time. The government central planners telling you how many children you can have is an abominable cruelty, resulting in countless female infanticides (although, quite surprisingly, you would never know about that by listening to AOC or anybody else from the cancel culture movement ... not many "academic papers" trying to come up with an estimation for that number, either).

      And then you have a "legal cartel" controlling the oil price (aren´t cartels illegal?)

      And then you have Russia annexing part of another country, and Venezuela, and Cuba, and North Korea ...

      Why China? why now? why thru a private owned company? ... Sure, it is about the "white knights for global free trade" movement. Nothing to do with 2020 being an electoral year ...

  12. Isn't one's personal data a form of currency being stored in Tik Tok, Google, Amazon, etc, cyber vaults? The data trove can be packaged and sold. It seems like that would be, metaphorically, unauthorized access to my "data checking account."

  13. Regarding TikTok and other data collection/scraping platforms on social media: Recommender engines are the source of the problem. Why? These are broad strokes here so bear with me. Recommender engines operate on the features of the content, whatever they may be and the user/consumer of the content. You like a video with cats, the Recommender engine "remembers" that you seem to like cat videos and pushes more of that similar content your way.

    Is this bad? What can be done with such data?

    Ultimately, recommender engines seek to get revealed preferences. With a time series data set, it is possible to build a very good psychological/economic profile of a person, or people within a geographical location. This can be good for advertisers, who seek to target a particular demo/psychographic. In the hands of bad actors, they can be used to manipulate perception and even nudge people towards preferences that are not in their best interest.

    Look, let's be real: There are foreign regimes that use technology to sow chaos. Why should we facilitate this? Answer: We shouldn't. So if we're going to be specific:

    1. Encrypt all data at rest and in transmission.
    2. All these platforms need data to operate or else they wouldn't function - sill, whatever analysis or algorithms use this data have to be audited to make sure there are no leaks in the data pipeline.
    3. Establish clear rules how the data can be used - since most is used for the purpose of ad dollars (look no further than FB or Google with their sponsored links that advertisers pay for (they buy keywords)), that's acceptable or else these platforms do not have a viable business model. (Can you imagine having to pay to use FB or Google?) But to aggregate all the data for use outside the platform, no. Lock it down. It cannot go outside the platform in any way. No more Cambridge Analytica.
    4. Anonymize data when used for advertising algorithms and recommender engines.
    5. Establish clear operational rules when there is a breach - establish liability and responsibility.

    Doing these things is a start in the right direction. As for promoting content from more reputable sources, I leave that up to the Avenging Angels of truth and wisdom, a group whose numbers seem to be diminishing; The self-interest component is built in for it establishes what happens when people screw up and incentivizes management to be vigilant versus not.



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