US threat to ban TikTok prompts call for democratic ownership

Co-operators Nathan Schneider and Michael Brennan warn that the bill ‘does nothing to address the crisis of surveillance capitalism’

Moves by US lawmakers to ban social media platform TikTok, which has 170 million users in the US, unless it is sold by ByteDance has prompted new discussion of ownership of online spaces.

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives, prompted by concerns that the Chinese-owned company could collect sensitive user data and politically censor content, passed a bill by 352 to 65 requiring it to sell the platform or face a total ban in the USA.

The bill still faces the hurdle of Senate, where its timetable has still to be set, and has also prompted a publicity campaign by TikTok, which is running TV ads in electoral swing states.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, said the bipartisan vote was “disappointing”, vowing that the company would do all it could to protect its interests, adding that it had had invested to protect data and keep the platform free from outside influences.

“This bill gives more power to handful of other social media companies,” he said, “who will also take billions of dollars out of the pockets of creators and small businesses. It will put more than 300,000 American jobs at risk and will take away your TikTok.”

Social media has long been the source of concern over ownership, regulation and data rights, and in 2017 co-operators mounted a campaign for a user buyout of Twitter.

Now, a leading light of the Buy Twitter campaign, platform co-op researcher Nathan Schneider, and fellow campaigner Michael Brennan, project coordinator for the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, say the debate over TikTok has opened an opportunity to rethink its ownership model.

“The bipartisan move to ban TikTok does nothing to address the crisis of surveillance capitalism that Americans are experiencing,” they warned. “Even if TikTok ceased to exist tomorrow, foreign governments would still have access to the personal data of Americans via US-based big tech companies because the business model is fundamentally predicated on selling data for targeted advertising; there is nothing unique about TikTok in this regard.

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“Worse still, the potential fire sale of TikTok to Steven Mnuchin and American capitalists suggests that Democrats have no real strategy for addressing the underlying problem, and are solely interested in advancing a new Cold War consensus for short-term political gain.”

They added: “Because this is a government-compelled event, there is a window of opportunity for lawmakers to stipulate a democratic ownership structure as a requirement for the divestiture, including through direct public ownership or facilitating a buyout to convert TikTok into a user-owned platform co-operative.

“Instead of targeting TikTok in particular, lawmakers concerned with Americans’ data and privacy should coalesce around a comprehensive data bill of rights, such as Senator Sherrod Brown’s 2020 Data Act. Congress should recognise that we need another option than another venture-backed tech monopoly.

“The situation with TikTok is yet another reminder that we need policy that can support technology owned and governed by the people who depend on it. Whether the platforms are surveilled from abroad or at home, the current model of building technology for investor control and state surveillance is a dead end. Just as we have done through history with rural electric co-ops, credit unions, and more, we need the ability to finance innovation on the foundation of community ownership.”