TikTok, the popular social media app known for its short-form videos, is currently at the centre of a legal debate regarding data privacy concerns and free speech. Montana recently signed a bill that prohibits downloads of TikTok within the state, setting the stage for a potential legal battle over First Amendment rights.
The ban on TikTok in Montana comes amidst growing worries from governments and regulators worldwide regarding the app’s ties to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance. The US government has raised concerns about the potential for data harvesting and espionage by the Chinese Communist Party. However, the ban has faced opposition from free-speech advocates who argue that it infringes upon citizens’ rights.
TikTok, which has over 150 million American users, is a short-form video hosting service owned by a Chinese parent company – ByteDance. It hosts user-submitted videos, which can range in duration from 3 seconds to 10 minutes. The app has become wildly popular with teens and currently having equal footing with other word-leading social media apps such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. According to the Pew Research Center, 67% of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 use TikTok, and 16% of all teens say they use the app almost constantly. TikTok has said that the “vast majority” of its users are over the age of 18.
On 24 May 2023, Montana signed a bill that prohibits downloads of TikTok within the state. This has not only made Montana the first US state to impose such a ban on the popular social media app but also set the stage for a potential legal battle over First Amendment rights. The legislation, scheduled to take effect in January, not only bans TikTok from operating within Montana but also prohibits app stores like Apple and Google from allowing downloads of the app. Failure to comply could result in fines of up to $10,000 per violation per day.
The primary legal concern regarding TikTok revolves around the collection and handling of users’ data. The US Government has expressed fears that the app could potentially gather data on its 150 million American users for espionage purposes. In March 2021, a 21-wide class-action lawsuit challenged TikTok’s data collection practices, alleging that the app breached the law by using facial recognition software to track and profile users for targeted advertising. There have also been claims that user data was sent to China, further fueling concerns about potential foreign interference.
TikTok announced it would pay £66m to avoid further privacy-related disputes and emphasised that they disagree with the assertions but they do not want to go through lengthy litigation. These concerns have fuelled calls for bans or divestiture of the app, in order to protect personal and private data from potential foreign interference.
The group challenged that TikTok has breached the law by using software to recognise facial features. This information was then algorithmic and used to track and profile users for ad targeting.
Another legal perspective highlighted the importance of protecting free speech, even in the face of concerns about data privacy and national security. Any restrictions imposed on social media platforms should be carefully balanced to ensure that they do not unduly suppress the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
The effectiveness of such measures in achieving their intended goals is questionable as well. Banning TikTok within a specific state may not effectively address the concerns related to data privacy and national security since the app can still be accessed through various means, such as virtual private networks (VPNs) or users downloading it from app stores in neighbouring states.
The need for comprehensive and thoughtful approaches to address national security concerns should be implemented while safeguarding individual rights. There is, clearly a call, for a balance between protecting citizens’ privacy and preserving their ability to engage with digital platforms and exercise their freedom of speech.
The debate over TikTok restrictions raises broader questions about the privacy practices and security of other social media platforms. TikTok is not the only app that has faced scrutiny regarding information privacy. Popular platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and Google have also faced criticism for their data collection practices. Users often receive targeted ads based on their search history or preferences, highlighting the larger issue of data privacy across various social media platforms.
The question arises whether it would be discriminatory to impose restrictions only on a Chinese-owned company like TikTok while allowing other platforms to continue their data collection practices. This broader issue of data privacy across various social media platforms highlights the need for comprehensive and consistent approaches to protect user privacy.
Concerns surrounding TikTok’s privacy and potential national security risks have prompted other countries to examine their own relationships with the app. A number of countries have raised questions regarding TikTok’s ties to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance and its handling of user data. Countries such as India, which previously banned TikTok in 2020 due to security problems have further intensified their scrutiny, with the Indian government citing data privacy and sovereignty concerns as reasons behind the ban. Other nations such as Australia and Japan have expressed similar concerns, with a country-wide ban imposed on government devices in Australia.
International organisations have also taken interest in the TikTok debate. Organisations such as Amnesty International have called for greater transparency and accountability in TikTok’s data practices, urging the company to uphold human rights standards. The United Nations Human Rights Council has raised concerns about the potential impact of TikTok restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information.
The legal concerns surrounding TikTok restrictions is, in short, a debate between free speech, and data privacy. Montana’s ban on TikTok sets the stage for a potential legal battle over the First Amendment rights of its citizens. The broader implications of this debate extend to other social media platforms that collect and utilise user data.
With increasing calls for data protection and privacy, it remains to be seen how governments and regulators will address these concerns in the future. While TikTok continues to assert its commitment to defending the rights of its users, the outcome of this legal debate will shape the landscape of social media regulation and information privacy in the years to come. It will also be interesting to see how the first ban on TikTok will impact other social media apps.
By Wing Han Chan
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