November 3, 2022

As Regulators Talk of Facebook, TikTok Looms.

The world is awash in talk of tech regulation. The Digital Services Act (DSA) in Europe represents one of the world’s first comprehensive attempts to regulate Big Tech, but it is only the beginning, and it will come to naught without a workable and effective enforcement mechanism. Further efforts are also underway in the U.S., the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and many other countries to pass tech reforms ranging from antitrust regulations to privacy laws to liability reforms.

However, this positive momentum could already be under threat. How? Because Meta and its peers are being eclipsed. Even if all the potential regulatory success is realised, attention peddlers in China are in the process of taking over and are addicting us to their algorithmic amplification engines more effectively and comprehensively than ever before. The result is harm to vulnerable populations and an epidemic of teen suicide of tragic proportion.

TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is on the rise. The TikTok model has taken surveillance capitalism to its logical and most frightening conclusion: the most addictive recommendation engine ever created, selecting from an essentially infinite sea of short, attention-grabbing videos, all to create a unique, personalised, and maximally engaging worldview for each of their billion plus users. And – here’s the most important part – nothing else. No “friends and family” updates, no attempt to amplify reputable news sources.

Just plug your brain into the machine and let it work on you.

This is why TikTok is currently dominating the social media space. They honed in on the most addictive aspect of social media and focused everything on it, stripping away all other pretence. And now the rest of the social media world is scrambling to catch up. Facebook is copying TikTok. Instagram is copying TikTok. YouTube is copying TikTokEven Twitter is now considering copying TikTok by bringing back Vine.  It’s a race to the bottom, where users must relinquish what little control they have left over their information environment to algorithms that prioritise engagement above all else.

It’s a disinformation peddlers paradise, especially now that TikTok has become the fastest growing source of news among young people. And the danger is not just that a billion people are learning about the world primarily through a supercharged engagement-driven algorithm. It’s also that that algorithm lies even further beyond the reach of regulators than the rest of the already under-regulated tech industry.

That is what’s so worrisome about a ByteDance-dominated future. Even though we are finally seeing glimmers of optimism around tech reform in the United States, the companies currently shaping the minds of the world’s youth are in China and elsewhere, outside (at least to a greater degree) the reach of even the West’s most forward-leaning regulators. And we haven’t even mentioned what happens when those foreign social media apps log everyone’s keystrokes or employ state-directed propagandists.

There still isn’t consensus over how to regulate the tech industry in the U.S. and Europe, so we are even further behind when it comes to platforms that are domiciled in more hostile places with poorer governance, less democracy, and worse human rights records. And all of the current regulatory approaches to Big Tech that are even close to becoming law were formulated before TikTok began to dominate the social media landscape. TikTok will be an ultimate test for the new DSA in Europe. For example, they have signed on to the EU’s Code of Practice on Disinformation and are thus subject to its data access requirements, but enforcement remains a big question mark.

That’s not to say there is zero hope. Of course, U.S. regulators can enforce rules around U.S. users, just as the Europeans have put in place rules that govern platforms that have European users, even when those companies affected are owned abroad. In the U.S., new laws have forced more transparency around Chinese companies listing on U.S. stock exchanges, though mostly this has driven Chinese companies to de-list rather than comply with these new requirements.

In the end, though, nothing motivates companies to comply with regulation like the executives at those companies sharing nationality with the regulators. China, of course, has demonstrated a rather perverse understanding of this principle, but it holds nonetheless. And while the goal is not to sound overly alarmist, it is important to remember that, with all the regulatory focus on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, EU and eventual U.S. regulation will only go so far to address Chinese-owned TikTok, or even whatever comes after it, as these new platforms outpace Western ones.

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