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Expert: TikTok bans highlight social media regulation issues

TikTok has done more than provide endless entertainment — it’s brought the dimensions of data sharing and privacy into the international spotlight. Four in five (83%) Americans agree that the government should regulate the use of certain apps when it poses a threat to the country or citizens of the country. And at a time where U.S. and China relations are already under scrutiny, Dr. James Hendler, Untethered World Chair of Computer, Web and Cognitive Sciences at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, says we could also see legislation to address more widespread internet privacy concerns. “There is definitely worry about TikTok and its relation to the Chinese government. There is clearly a connection there,” said Hendler. “That connection clearly concerns some people in the national security area. If they decide this was a real threat, then they can actually take action.” According to a survey of 2,000 social media users conducted by OnePoll, another two-thirds (68%) agree that if the U.S. government were to ban social media app Tik Tok, it would infringe on First Amendment rights. But according to Hendler, there’s a lot more to it than that. “There were some cases brought to the court about the current regulation on social media, which probably is better referred to as the current lack of regulation. There are a few things that are very clearly prohibited; child pornography, incitement for terrorism, various things like that,” said Hendler. “But one of the questions becomes: How many steps removed does that have to be?” “Free speech is an odd concept. People think free speech means anyone can say anything. Free speech really means government-controlled things have a limit,” said Hendler. Most Americans are most concerned about scammers purchasing or collecting their personal information (57%) — though foreign governments (50%) and the U.S. government (45%) didn’t fall far behind. “There’s a pretty good bipartisan agreement that something needs to happen in the data space, but it’s very hard because there’s not a clear precedent of what can and can’t be shared and there is in, say, the medical profession or census information,” Hendler said. Americans have photos of themselves (53%), their legal name (50%), photos of what their kids look like (47%), where they live (46%) and their political affiliation (33%). Others have religious views and values (31%), gender (28%) and job title (23%) on social media. Beyond security concerns, Hendler says U.S. law allows the sale of that data to be used for anything from sending you more targeted ads, to setting higher prices for certain customers online. “There’s no rule that they have to offer everybody the same prices,” said Hendler. “In fact they use that data to customize the prices. So if they think I will pay more than you, they’ll tell me a different number than they will tell you.” And according to the survey, more than half (54%) of Americans don’t know that it is legal for online retailers to adjust their prices for each viewer based on personal data that’s been collected. Most Americans (82%) are concerned about the personal information social media apps are selling, so much so that they believe government intervention is on the horizon. Almost four in five (79%) believe that after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent ban of TikTok on government-owned phones and computers, as well as Texas universities banning it from their servers, other states and institutions are likely to follow. Hendler also believes legislative change will come, but it won’t happen overnight. “Some of these things can’t be legislated. It's not black and white. There’s a lot of gray area. Legal systems thrive in these gray areas. Humans aren’t as happy necessarily in that gray area. A lot of these privacy rights and things are going to fall in those gray areas,” Hendler said. “The real issue boils down to (that) there are people who would like to see a lot of regulation and there are people who believe regulation, in general, is bad. You can find arguments on both sides.” Survey methodology: This random double-opt-in survey of 2,000 Americans who use social media was commissioned between March 24 and March 27, 2023. It was conducted by market research company OnePoll, whose team members are members of the Market Research Society and have corporate membership to the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) and the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (ESOMAR).