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TechScape: Is ‘banning’ TikTok protecting users or censorship? It depends who you ask

TechScape: Is ‘banning’ TikTok protecting users or censorship? It depends who you ask

In this week’s newsletter: American universities and legislators are blocking access to the China-owned app over privacy concerns – but fans say the choice should be theirs

The US battle with TikTok over data privacy concerns and Chinese influence has been heating up for years, and recent measures have brought college campuses to the forefront – with a number of schools banning the app entirely on campus wifi. Students have responded, of course, on TikTok. Taking advantage of viral sounds, they have expressed outrage at their favourite app being blocked at universities like Auburn, Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the past few months. “Do they not realize people in college are actually adults?” one user wrote. “We should make our own independent decision to use TikTok or not,” another said.

But how did we get here?

The actions come amid a cascade of TikTok bans by state and federal lawmakers in the US, who say the app’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, could collect sensitive user data and censor content that goes against the demands of the Chinese Communist party.

TikTok was first targeted in earnest by the Trump administration in 2020, with a sweeping executive order prohibiting US companies from doing business with ByteDance. That measure was later revoked by Joe Biden in June 2021, but the company’s problems were far from over. The current president stipulated that the US committee on foreign investment (CFIUS) conduct a security review of the platform and suggested a path forward to avoid a permanent ban. That review is ongoing, with no timeline released for a final decision.

Meanwhile, states have taken action of their own, with Congress passing a ban of TikTok on all federal devices in December and 31 individual states banning the app on government devices, most of which were passed in the last two months. Most of the campus bans have been carried out in states that have already passed their own rules against the app, but questions remain about how impactful such measures will be.

How does banning TikTok work?

Schools often block or regulate traffic to certain websites on campus wifi networks, including harmful content and pornography and such measures can extend to specific apps. Similar measures have been taken in the past like with controversial anonymous social media platform Yik Yak.

But tech experts say these bans are quite easy to circumvent, as the app will only be banned on shared campus wifi and not on individual devices. To bypass the block, students can simply turn off wifi and use personal cellular data, as one expert told me in my story on the topic this week.

“This specific ban will likely count as barely an inconvenience for the students subject to it, and it would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, both technically and ethically, to enforce students using TikTok on their own personal devices,” said Mike Parkin, senior technical engineer at cybersecurity firm Vulcan Cyber.

An increased number of students exclusively using data rather than wifi could cause additional issues, like data networks being clogged on campuses, making student devices run more slowly and ineffectively.

“This is an extension of the clumsy and extreme state actions we have seen taken against TikTok at state levels,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the non-profit media watchdog Media Matters for America. “The ban will be ineffective and does nothing except score political points and tax already flimsy infrastructure.”

‘A red herring’?

Many internet freedom advocates have questioned the policies, saying they amount to censorship and are largely ploys for influence at a time when targeting Chinese technology is politically beneficial. Others say such actions will only ramp up in coming months as election season approaches and politicians try to outdo each other with new measures.

“It’s fertile ground, but TikTok is a red herring because such security concerns exist with all platforms,” Carusone said. “It ends up being a hyper-political issue that does not respond to actual threats.”

Meanwhile, many who oppose such measures have called for a broader effort to address some of the issues raised by TikTok’s recent legal battles, including the need for a national data privacy law, mandating data transparency, and encrypting messaging on social platforms. “These problems exist on every social media app out there, not just TikTok,” said Gillian Diebold of the Center for Data Innovation.

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