The Technology 202: Trump’s TikTok order sparks questions about future of online...

The Technology 202: Trump’s TikTok order sparks questions about future of online expression


“We should be careful about giving the president the unfettered power to shut down a foreign communications platform,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “That kind of shutdown has a real effect on Americans’ First Amendment rights.” 

A top U.S. TikTok executive signaled that many options – including a court battle — are on the table as the shutdown clock narrows in a letter sent to congressional offices. 

“We will pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the Administration, then by the US courts,” wrote Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s vice president and head of U.S. public policy, in the letter shared with The Technology 202. 

NPR reports that TikTok is planning to sue the administration in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, where the company’s American operations are located. TikTok declined to comment on that report.

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, which has sparked a host of national security concerns because it is one of the first Chinese social media companies to take off in the United States.

Any legal battle could be much bigger than TikTok and Trump. It could become a showdown over the future of the free and open Internet. 

“The consequences of the recent Executive Order go far beyond TikTok,” Beckerman wrote in the letter shared with The Technology 202. “They undermine global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law. They present a direct threat to free expression.” 

American tech companies compete bitterly with TikTok, but observers are watching to see if they will throw their powerful legal and policy resources behind the company in opposition to the Trump administration’s heavy-handed approach to Internet regulation. Apple and Google particularly could be drawn into the controversy, especially if the Trump administration attempts to prevent them from offering TikTok in their respective App Stores. The app has been downloaded more than 175 million times in the United States. 

Civil liberties groups have also said they oppose the order, though none have threatened to sue. Yet. 

The American Civil Liberties Union is “exploring all options in response,” said spokesman Abdullah Hasan.

The administration has provided little concrete evidence to support claims the company is a national security threat. 

One Washington-based tech group has argued that the White House should be more transparent with the public about how TikTok could threaten Americans’ data, and they say it’s abnormal to have take a drastic executive action without a thorough investigation. 

“That’s also worrying, that the executive branch could take action without disclosing why it’s concerned,” said Avery Gardiner, general counsel and senior fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology. 

Trump’s allies, particularly White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, have accused the Chinese government of using TikTok data to surveil Americans. 

TikTok collects broad amounts of sensitive personal data, like many social networks. My colleagues note that information is potentially available to the Chinese government under a national intelligence law that requires any Chinese company to “support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work.” 

TikTok has repeatedly denied that the Chinese government has ever demanded information about U.S. consumers, and the company also said it wouldn’t comply if it did. TikTok has taken steps to assuage policymakers’ fears in the United States, including hiring Washington lobbyists and regularly releasing transparency reports. 

The Trump administration’s handling of the process could be key to a potential legal challenge. 

NPR reports that TikTok plans to challenge the order on the grounds that the administration’s national security concerns are baseless. It will also argue the Trump administration didn’t give the company enough of a chance to respond before deciding to ban it. 

The order “is based on pure speculation and conjecture,” a person who was directly involved in the forthcoming suit but was not authorized to speak for the company told NPR. “The order has no findings of fact, just reiterates rhetoric about China that has been kicking around.”

Beckerman potentially previewed this line of defense in his letter to Congressional offices yesterday. He cited a recent comments from the Australian prime minister, who said the country has found no evidence that TikTok should be banned. He also cited a recent New York Times report, which said the Central Intelligence Agency had no evidence that found Chinese intelligence authorities had used TikTok to intercept data about Americans, even though it said it was possible that they could. 

“We’re building for the long term, and we’re not planning on going anywhere,” Beckerman wrote.

Our top tabs

A California judge ordered Lyft and Uber to classify drivers in the state as employees.

Both Uber and Lyft plan to appeal before the injunction goes into place in 10 days, Faiz Siddiqui reports

The ruling responds to a motion filed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, alongside four California city attorneys, who argued that the ride-hailing companies were misclassifying drivers under state law. The parties requested an injunction that would require Uber and Lyft to immediately classify drivers as employees and provide them related benefits.  

The clash with regulators comes as both Uber and Lyft have seen their core businesses cratered by the coronavirus pandemic. Both have seen ridership dip as much 75 percent, Faiz reports. Having to classify drivers as employees could put further strain on the companies’ finances.

Uber and Lyft are backing a $110 million ballot initiative in California that would prevent their workers from being classified as employees. 

California’s labor commissioner last week also sued both companies for allegedly engaging in wage theft. The lawsuit seeks to recover the amounts owed to all drivers for both companies, including about 5,000 who have already filed complaints with the office, according to a news release.

Uber and Lyft face a similar challenge by the Massachusetts state attorney general, who alleges the companies are misclassifying drivers.

Facebook’s own investigation reveals that millions of users are engaging with QAnon conspiracy theory content. 

QAnon alleges that “deep state” actors are trying to unseat Trump and that Democrats are engaged in child abuse. Facebook employees have expressed concerns that QAnon could influence the 2020 election and that the pages and groups most likely violate Facebook’s existing policies against misinformation and extremism. 

Facebook may start to treat the content similarly to anti-vaccination content, which it excludes from searches and advertising, two employees told NBC News. Facebook says that it has consistently enforced existing policies against QAnon, including cracking down on inauthentic coordinated behavior. Last week Facebook removed one of the largest QAnon groups, which had more than 200,000 members.

Facebook unveiled a new team that will chase opportunities in payments and commerce. 

The effort is a part of a broader initiative by Facebook to tie Instagram, WhatsApp and main Facebook App products together under one brand. The company is looking to expand commerce within these apps, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said on a recent earnings call.

The company has faced a serious regulatory backlash against its foray into finance. Regulators in both Brazil and India have stalled the tech giant’s plans to launch payments inside WhatsApp. International and domestic regulators also swiftly threatened to shut down its Libra cryptocurrency project.

Trump, as well as members of Congress, also criticized Libra. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), the Democratic chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, last year called for a moratorium on the project until Congress could further investigate.

Rant and rave

Twitter users provided examples of how expansive QAnon’s reach is on Facebook. Media Matters’s Alex Kaplan:

The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance:

Trump tracker

The White House will work with the FCC to auction off military radio frequencies to 5G networks. 

The auction, slated for December 2021, would mark a rare compromise between the Federal Communications Commission and the Defense Department, which has aggressively resisted past efforts to give some military frequencies to the private sector, Drew FitzGerald at the Wall Street Journal reports

Telecom companies such as AT&T and Verizon will now be able to bid on licenses for them, after the companies have long fought for greater access to mid-band spectrum. 

“Under this administration’s approach, the American private sector will continue to build the next 5G networks,” White House technology adviser Michael Kratsios told reporters. 

The Commerce Department and the European Commission will begin to work on a new agreement to make it easier for companies to comply with E.U. data laws.

BSA and the Information Technology Industry Council, which represent tech companies including Amazon, Apple and Facebook, praised the move. 

“Cross-border data flows are pivotal to the $1.3 trillion trading relationship between the U.S. and E.U. and are relied upon by the more than 5,300 Privacy Shield-certified businesses,” ITI President and CEO Jason Oxman said in a statement. “We’re encouraged that the U.S. and E.U. have begun talks on a successor framework.”

The E.U. invalidated a privacy agreement last month that helped U.S. companies be considered in compliance of E.U. data laws without having to reach individual agreements with the E.U.

Competition watch

Russia’s competition watchdog said Apple abused its power over the App Store. 

The regulatory body said that Apple violated the law by reserving the right to block third parties, Reuters reports. The Russian regulator began to investigate Apple after cybersecurity company Kaspersky Lab said that Apple declined a new version of its parental control app after Apple released a competitor. Apple plans to appeal the ruling.

E.U. antitrust regulators are also investigating Apple. Both Facebook and Microsoft recently voiced concerns about Apple’s requirement that developers use Apple’s in-app purchasing system. Russian regulators also raised concerns about this feature.


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