The Clock is TikTok-ing for American Privacy Rights



By Kayla Molander
Michael Paul Galvin Chair in Entrepreneurship and Applied Legal Technology and Professor of Law Nancy Kim.

In March the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that would force its Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the popular video social media app.

“Lawmakers are concerned that the app is a national security risk because the China-based company is, they believe, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and could brainwash users with propaganda and misinformation,” says Nancy Kim, Michael Paul Galvin Chair in Entrepreneurship and Applied Legal Technology and professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

“But a sale of TikTok won’t resolve the problem of propaganda and misinformation online,” Kim says, “Other social media sites, including Instagram, Facebook, and X, are awash in problematic content that moderators are unable to keep in check.”

That hasn’t stopped lawmakers from trying to control TikTok. In December 2022 TikTok admitted that ByteDance employees had spied on foreign journalists to identify their sources and track their movements. These revelations led to the app being banned on government devices in the United States and several states, as well as Canada, Australia, France, and other countries. India banned the app altogether.

The U.S. House version of the bill was sent to the Senate for debate, but Kim doesn’t expect that to go anywhere soon.

“What might move the needle on privacy protection is not the TikTok legislation but another bill that received less attention and was passed at the same time,” says Kim. “The Protecting Americans’ Data from Foreign Adversaries Act prevents data brokers from selling sensitive personal data of U.S. citizens to entities controlled by the U.S.’s foreign adversaries.”

Kim notes that while the data broker bill would make the process of purchasing data more difficult, the Chinese government and other foreign adversaries could still obtain U.S. citizen data by purchasing it indirectly from third parties. “As long as the data is available for sale, our adversaries could get their hands on it,” Kim says.

“Both bills could be counterproductive if they divert lawmakers’ attention away from passing more comprehensive data privacy legislation,” Kim says. “TikTok isn’t the only social media app that hosts propaganda and misinformation, and as long as U.S. citizens’ data is being bought and sold, there will be ways for them to obtain it through resellers.”