So ketamine is a dangerous drug. Alright, but what about alcohol?
So TikTok is a national security threat. Alright, what about Meta?
The declaration that one thing is unreconcilably bad and the other good or at least substantially less bad is based on little to no data.
In the congressional hearings about TikTok, most complaints from the U.S. ruling class apply to all social media platforms. The main complaints also apply to all major internet companies monetized from collecting consumer data. The claims of TikTok being a national security threat are much the same arbitrary arguments as what drugs are made illegal.
Ketamine, is an order of magnitude less harmful than alcohol. If you want to argue that fact, first check with any emergency medicine doctor or read the analyses of the Drug harms in the U.K paper, but I digress. My claim for TikTok is that it’s pretty much the same U.S. national security risk as Facebook and Google.
That TikTok is a Chinese company may pose some security risks to U.S. interests not posed by other popular apps. Shoshana Wodinsky created a list of all the unique crimes the company was accused of committing during the, to use a line from Reason Magazine, masturbatory display of political theater.
Very few accusations are unique to TikTok. But, to the extent that members of congress know about data brokers, I assume they feel the U.S. data brokers’ selling lists of all the closeted gay people, with cancer, taking anti depressants in Kentucky are good and clean. But first party data collection by the Chinese Communist Party is bad, and dirty. The drug harm-comparison analogy here is alcohol you distilled yourself versus GHB you made in your bathtub; both being less than ideal.
TikTok has blocked videos about human rights in China. That’s evil. However, heartless as is caveat will sound that wasn’t the point of the hearing. When questions about the censoring of content showing China’s crimes against the Uyghurs came up, it was to highlight TikTok’s power to manipulate public discourse even in the US.
I Like Big But…
But. This but is so big a Sir Mix-a-Lot song should play in the background for a fun homophone; The web has always been shaped by a handful of megacompanies.
I could point to the satellites and cables. But without examining the physical infrastructure making up the global internet’s plumbing, look at the sites people visit. Google, Gmail, Drive, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp make up much of many people’s internet experience. Most of the remaining time statistically is spent on 20 other large sites owned by a hand full of companies.
Once navigated via directories and cross-links, the web is now gobbled up by Google. The Big G controls the flow of information to an extent that for many websites a Google penalty means they don’t exist. When Google names its preferred way to syndicate content or add links to press releases, that becomes the correct way.
Facebook became an easy place for news outlets to get traffic, the result is that seemingly every news outlet on earth promoted Facebook on every page. Media companies asked users to follow them on Facebook at the expense of building their email lists or native apps. Facebook now controls the reach of many media companies, frequently forcing them to pay Facebook to reach an audience they built for Facebook.
I love Techmeme; it’s an example of a curated feed site that used to be more common online. Techmeme succeeded despite following little of the conventional wisdom for SEO and social growth. Most sites like it failed, largely because Google, and Facebook killed them off.
The web was once fragmented, relying on open protocols. Over time power has been concentrated to fewer parties, mostly in closed systems. In my time online I’ve seen forums all but vanish, and RSS/Atom fall out of use.
Google Reader dominated the market for RSS readers from 2005 until Google killed it in 2013. Google’s tendency is to offer a free product, corner the market, build a new closed system, and kill off the free product leaving no viable competitors. Anyway, feel free to follow my blog on Google News.
As for forums, if all the forums of 2012 were owned by one large company, that company would have lobbied congress to have Facebook shut down. Monopolists like to kill off competitors. Killing can mean launching a competing product, or asking legislators to act as a weapon in the name of national security.
The concentration of control over information flow is concerning. Alphabet and Meta have killed off most of the curators. When AI starts to flood the web with spam, we will desperately miss the curators we lost.
Make no mistake Alphabet and Meta are monopolies. TikTok competes with them for eyeballs, and perhaps even as a search engine. Alphabet with YouTube shorts and Meta with Instagram and Facebook reels have tried to compete with TikTok, but are hardly winning. It’s weird that Meta ended it’s Reels Play bonus program only after congress started foaming at the mouth over the idea of banning TikTok.
To the extent that TikTok poses a risk to U.S. interests, it’s the fear that a new Mr. Monopoly will dance into our hearts, and do to U.S. monopolies what they have done to everyone else since the dawn of the web. This doesn’t’ make TikTok good. But heed my message; every player is cheating.