Chuck Todd: The big missing piece in Congress’ rushed TikTok debate

An important aspect of the debate over TikTok has gotten lost as Congress considers legislation that would potentially force the app’s parent company, ByteDance, to sell TikTok or face a U.S. ban: the public’s privacy.

Unfortunately, the best-case scenario for this legislation is that the American people’s data will still be available for manipulation and used for algorithms with very little public insight into how they work.

Let’s back up to how we got here. I’m always a bit nervous when Congress goes from not acting on something for years to sudden near unanimity in a matter of days. Usually, there’s a hint of crisis in the air to get Congress to move as fast as it suddenly appears to be moving on TikTok.

So why now? Clearly, there are concerns about potential operational control of the TikTok algorithm on the part of the Chinese government. Given this is an election year and young voters are potentially so crucial to the outcome, fear of an outside entity’s influencing the election through TikTok should be something that the government can prevent.

Meanwhile, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence put out its annual report in time for this year’s worldwide threats hearing, which is happening in the midst of this TikTok debate. Among the warnings: that China is ramping up its covert operations and might attempt to influence the election by exploiting our country’s perceived societal divisions via social media.

Here is what the intelligence report noted publicly, even specifically name-checking TikTok:

  • “Beijing’s growing efforts to actively exploit perceived U.S. societal divisions using its online personas move it closer to Moscow’s playbook for influence operations.”

  • “China is demonstrating a higher degree of sophistication in its influence activity, including experimenting with generative AI. TikTok accounts run by a PRC propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022.”

  • “Beijing is intensifying efforts to mold U.S. public discourse — particularly on core sovereignty issues, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. The PRC monitors Chinese students abroad for dissident views, mobilizes Chinese student associations to conduct activities on behalf of Beijing, and influences research by U.S. academics and think tank experts.”

(“PRC” is the People’s Republic of China.)

The national security establishment clearly explains the urgency. The question I have is: Why this specific law? And why are we letting off the hook every other social media platform that manipulates our data against our wishes (and, at times, against our democracy’s wishes)?

This bill appears to be an attempt to deal with TikTok and the presence of the Chinese government. Frustratingly, what this bill wouldn’t do is force TikTok or any online company to publicly inform people how their data is being used. This bill would do nothing about the abuse of private data on any platforms not named TikTok. In fact, if ByteDance does sell TikTok, the platform would be allowed to use its same opaque cloak to hide how our data is being used and manipulated to power it.

TikTok makes it nearly impossible to change what content you see or to alter the algorithm it has decided to use on you. That’s not going to change even if its ownership structure changes. And plenty of Americans are as uncomfortable with Mark Zuckerberg’s or Elon Musk’s having control of our data as they are with the Chinese Communist Party.

Ultimately, my fear about TikTok is the lack of control users have over the content they see. However TikTok vacuums up data from your phone the first time you download it is unclear. It’s also not clear how TikTok uses whatever data you do voluntarily give up, so it essentially comes up with a composite algorithm to serve you until it has accumulated enough actual data on you to personalize it even more, which is something that isn’t made clear at all to the average user.

Why is it so hard to force tech companies to be transparent at the start of their relationship with the customer about how they use your data and what options you have to take control of what they can do with it? There ought to be a law!

We’ve had strong laws on the books for decades regarding foreign ownership of legacy media: “Section 310(b)(3) prohibits foreign individuals, governments, and corporations from owning more than twenty percent of the capital stock of a broadcast, common carrier, or aeronautical radio station licensee.” It’s not immediately clear to me applying the same ownership rules we have for broadcast media wouldn’t be a more direct route to targeting TikTok.

When it comes to the internet, it is sometimes easier for lawmakers to start from scratch than to amend older telecommunications legislation. But as a member of so-called legacy media, I find it tiring to see internet-based media companies get to play by different rules and be held to different standards for no apparent reason. The competitive advantage lawmakers wanted to give this new technology has been realized and then some. To say Section 230 — the specific part of the 1996 telecommunications law that creates this legal carve-out for anyone operating a platform online — has outlived its usefulness is an understatement.

In practical terms, this is what the law means when it comes to paid advertising. A legacy broadcast media company like NBC is held responsible for TV ads on its air that knowingly mislead the public, even if they were created and paid for by third parties. Internet companies are protected from liability for spreading paid misinformation thanks to their longtime get-out-of-jail free card, Section 230.

In short: A political campaign can run an ad filled with falsehoods and misinformation on Facebook without Facebook’s being held accountable. If that same ad airs on a broadcast TV channel like NBC, ABC or CBS, the network is the one held accountable for airing it.

Obviously, there are a lot of folks advocating to treat online advertising the same as broadcast TV advertising, especially as online advertising is more prevalent in our day-to-day lives. But this TikTok legislation doesn’t deal with this issue. Not even close.

That’s just one example of how online media has gotten a pass on misinformation simply because Congress has either been unwilling or unable to update our laws. (Some lawmakers like that we’ve replaced one dominant media landscape with another — as long as they think they can get away with more.)

The tech companies also spend a ton of money lobbying Congress hoping — at a minimum — to simply gum things up. At this point, the strategy of the tech community is to keep Congress from acting, because a status quo, with Section 230 still in place untouched, keeps the money rolling in. It’s why many privacy advocates in the U.S. now are looking to the European Union to force the tech industry to protect users and their privacy.

Ultimately, we should demand legislation that protects and empowers users. Right now, the platforms have all the control. They all control what we see by using our preferences and make it either difficult or, in the case of TikTok, impossible to change (let alone control) the algorithms they use to deliver content to us.

Right now, the online companies want the onus to be on the user to decide what’s decent and what isn’t. You’ve seen those ads from Meta claiming it cares about our kids — and then they hope you’ve taken at least one computer science class in order to navigate its child protection tools. These companies ought to release the most secure versions of their platforms and then let users make it less secure (or more “adult”). It shouldn’t be the other way around.

Why is the burden on the user to tighten the protocols? I know the answer: advertising dollars. The more consumer content is limited, the more complicated (and less cash-flush) the ad business becomes for these platforms.

I remember a fight between students and the administration in college over a new “voluntary” student fee that was automatically included in our tuition bills, unless we proactively crossed the line item off our statements. The school knew a lot of folks would simply pay the entire balance without looking at the details about the extra voluntary fee.

As a student, I found it to be a shady practice — only to find out it was standard practice in just about every business in America, be it an internet company, a labor union, a hospital, a university or a hotel. (See, college does teach us life skills!)

The North Star of all tech legislation needs to be privacy. And if lawmakers write legislation that is always thinking about what protects users, then everyone involved will know they have to run their online platforms with data privacy as the North Star.

It’s not that way now. If anything, all most consumer-facing tech companies care about is our data. They come up with all sorts of ways to trick us into handing them access to our data, which they use to turn into propaganda on us. It’s a loop that can turn even the least paranoid among us into tinfoil-hat wearers.

While Congress is worried about foreign influence on TikTok, I sure hope it is also worried about countries who don’t share our values when they buy into our sports leagues (see the Qataris) or invest in other social media platforms like X (see the Saudis).

Congress should focus on our data on every platform, not just TikTok — putting its effort on the big picture when it comes to how much power our data has given to social media companies, whether TikTok, Meta, X, Snap or others. Focusing on one platform at a time is simply playing a game of whack-a-mole that the government (and we citizens) will inevitably lose.

Here we go again

This TikTok episode has also served to reveal just how transactional former President Donald Trump is when it comes to his personal beliefs. Once for banning the app, Trump is now against a ban, soon after meetings that included ByteDance investor and GOP megadonor Jeff Yass. (Trump told CNBC that TikTok didn’t come up in their conversation.)

The wash, rinse, repeat aspect of influencing Trump — who then influences the Trump base — is shockingly public for all of us to see. And it’s a playbook that every entity now has at its disposal. Present Trump with an offer — either politically helpful or financial — that’s high enough, and you can get him to change his tune. It may well be a “feature” of the Trump era that Trump embraces; he wants everyone to have to come to him first if they want anything from the GOP or the government. And if he makes himself pliable enough, it means he becomes the first stop for lobbyists, not the last one — which is how the GOP could become a kleptocracy if the party isn’t careful.

Trump doesn’t even hide it, which, of course, may actually be why he escapes punishment from a larger chunk of voters. If his words were “caught” on a recording via a White House taping system, for example, the public would recoil against him (like with Nixon). But because he doesn’t hide who he is, the blowback for his bad behavior seems to be minimal — or worse, accepted as an example of how business is done on the GOP side of the aisle.

In recent weeks, Trump has changed positions on two hot-button social issues (Bud Light and TikTok) after having met with someone connected to said controversial brand who also has the resources to help his campaign. Connecting these dots isn’t very difficult, and, again, it seems almost on purpose by Trump to advertise how best to “work” with him. Trump may not be the first politician who is for sale, but he’s among the most brazen, and it’s something that hasn’t stuck to him, at least not yet.

Of course, it’s so common for people in elective office to sell out their positions for either political or economic gain that it barely seems to register on the outrage meter. Look at Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. He faces federal charges alleging he received bribes from two different foreign governments now, and it seems only Democratic Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania is outraged enough to call for his ouster from the Senate. The kid-gloves treatment of Menendez by his fellow Democrats right now is quite astonishing given how outraged the party wants Americans to be by the behavior of Trump.

I’m not trying to both-sides this, but not calling out bad behavior because it’s not worth the internal blowback only emboldens and empowers the Trumps of the world. Yes, we all live in glass houses, so let’s try repairing some of the windows, not just letting more glass shatter.

The GOP battle for Ohio

While Trump has decisively won the GOP nomination for president, in some places, there’s still a battle down the ballot over what direction the party should take. Toward the end of the shortened primary season, it was clear that Nikki Haley and Trump were pretty good at representing the two major competing factions of America’s right-of-center political party. Trump is the leader of the nationalist wing (some critics would call it isolationist or nativist), while Haley was the leader of the free market (think Chamber of Commerce types), internationalist wing, which some critics would call the “globalist” or “RINO” wing.

While the GOP electorate spoke out loud and clear for the side of Trump in the presidential primaries, a few down-ballot campaigns are still becoming sub-battles in this struggle between the two wings. Ohio’s Senate race might be ground zero for this debate, as Trump and his nationalist forces are fully behind Bernie Moreno, while the old guard, more Chamber of Commerce-aligned wing of the party is behind a wealthy scion, Matt Dolan.

The divides in this race are stark, particularly over issues like Ukraine and whether government should be small or strong. In the last Ohio Senate primary, the old guard stayed out of the race and let Trump essentially pick the nominee, now-Sen. JD Vance. This time, the old guard is uniting behind a non-Trump candidate, with both Gov. Mike DeWine and former Sen. Rob Portman lining up behind Dolan. Dolan ran against Vance in 2022 but didn’t have this level of outside support.

For those Republicans who hope to rebuild and redirect the party in a new direction post-Trump, a Dolan primary victory would be the start of a movement in that direction — should Trump lose the presidential race. But a Moreno victory would mean the Ohio GOP is most likely headed into the arms of Trump for the long haul, not just an election cycle or two. Whatever the outcome in this GOP Senate primary, it will matter a lot in the future of the GOP. And it’s certainly, for me, the most consequential GOP race to watch this cycle because of all the subtext involved.

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