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Policy / DCN perspectives on policy, law, and legislative news surrounding digital content

TikTok: How China concerns highlight the lack of US leadership on data

October 31, 2019 | By Chris Pedigo, SVP Government Affairs – DCN @Pedigo_Chris

Last week, US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) sent a letter to the Director of National Intelligence to request an assessment of the national security risks posed by TikTok. As you may know, TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is based in Beijing. With TikTok’s popularity surging worldwide, the Senators expressed concerns about the Chinese Communist government’s ability to access consumer data collected by TikTok, censor speech, or even influence elections.

Of course, these concerns are not new. In the past, other policymakers have expressed similar concerns about the Chinese government when there is news about a US company operating in the Chinese market. Recently, Apple and Google among others were criticized for removing apps from their app stores that the Chinese government did not like.

A unified front

Chinese censorship has long been an issue that runs contrary to American beliefs and policy. Across the board, American policymakers agree that free speech is an important principle that should be protected. And this political consensus informs our stance with regard to China. There are questions about the best way to strategically engage with China, but there is no question that America supports the right of people to protest and speak freely.

The Chinese government has also been heavy handed with its use of data for surveillance as well as to monitor public (and private) sentiment. Though it has GDPR-like data regulation, what companies can do and what the government can do under Chinese law are quite different. This becomes a more complicated issue for the U.S. as we lack a federal standard or consensus for what constitutes ethical use or reasonable protection of consumer data by corporate entities or the government.

In 2018, Europe began to enforce the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which provides a framework for the proper collection and use of consumer data. And, in the last year, a handful of states (California most prominently) have adopted consumer privacy laws. For years, individual states have maintained separate and different data security and breach notification requirements. However, federal policymakers remain divided over a national standard for how consumer data should be protected, collected and used. This lack of consensus hinders America’s ability to lead the global conversation about data. And it certainly prevents our ability to take a unified stance on China’s data policies.

Competitive behavior

This year, we have seen multiple investigations opened into the anticompetitive behavior of Google and Facebook. Some have argued against breaking up Facebook and Google because these two companies need to be big enough to compete with China. For me, that argument runs counter to the core American values of democracy and capitalism. Ignore for the moment that monopolies (or duopolies in this case) tend to grow stagnant and stifle innovation. Our answer to China shouldn’t be “let’s be more like China!” Rather, we should be focused on enabling a fair marketplace where small and large businesses can compete, where consumers are protected and empowered, and where ideas and speech are protected.

DCN has long supported the passage of a federal standard for data security and breach notifications and a comprehensive consumer privacy law. Having a single national standard for the protection and use of consumer data would benefit consumers, who currently have no or different laws that apply. It would also benefit businesses, which would prefer to avoid having to comply with multiple and sometimes conflicting state laws.

Now, we have one more reason to unify our policy. A national standard on data security and use would get the US off the sidelines and enable American policymakers to lead the global conversation about data.