Ideasroom

TikTok, echo chambers and data control

It's time to end to the manipulation of newsfeeds, demand fact-checking and smash our echo chambers, writes Gehan Gunasekara 

Data privacy has now become a mainstream election issue on par with the likes of health or education.

People care deeply how their personal information is managed. This is evidenced by the fact that the recent Covid-19 patient data leak ended the career of one National Party politician and affected three others including the former party leader and previous party president.

Overseas, the alleged data privacy practices of the Chinese-owned TikTok video-sharing platform have led the US administration to move against it. More likely, the app now looks likely to be bought by Microsoft in order to “save” it, amounting to a US takeover.

The hypocrisy involved in the US moves against TiKTok beggars belief. At the heart of the allegations are claims that data gathered from the app is likely to be shared with the Chinese State Security apparatus. In other words, there is the likelihood of mass surveillance. Just last month, however, in the case known as Schrems II, brought by the Austrian law student against Facebook, the highest European Court ruled the framework allowing the export of personal data to the USA invalid.

The grounds of the European Court’s ruling are – you guessed it – the fact that apps such as Facebook are unable to guarantee that the information of their users is not subject to surveillance by US intelligence agencies without judicial process and the ability to challenge their legality. The official given the task of policing complaints brought by Europeans was a State Department staffer and regarded as insufficiently independent to assure privacy rights.

Where New Zealand is concerned it is therefore somewhat reassuring that we are one of the few countries where our intelligence agencies can be complained about to the Privacy Commissioner. In addition, it is noteworthy that an independent watchdog, the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, has been known to take the agencies to task where shortcomings have been found.

Be that as it may, the reality is that all apps are a Trojan Horse that can potentially gather up vast amounts of data concerning users. The two largest global economies, however, share a common weakness in their regulation of these platforms which are now integral to everyday life. Ironically, China has a greater number of privacy regulations that apply to internet platforms than does the US. Despite this, it shares the same fundamental weakness where the sharing of information with government is concerned.

We should demand that politicians stop weaponising data for their own purposes. New Zealand is a model in this regard as the new Privacy Act was passed with the support of all parties in Parliament. As for the companies, citizens everywhere are entitled to transparency. Promises from the likes of TikTok need to be tested – by, for example, posting videos critical of the Chinese government. If posts are removed, assurances will then be seen for what they are.

Platforms must also respect the rules where their users live. Thus, freedom of speech is central to New Zealand culture and attempts by, say, a Chinese-owned platform to censor speech here must be fiercely resisted. On the other hand, New Zealand is entitled to regulate hate speech and denigration of individuals.

It is time for individuals everywhere to get back control of their data. We must demand the end to the manipulation of newsfeeds, demand fact-checking to outlaw fake news, smash echo chambers in order to enable genuine discourse, transparency as to who is behind advertising and how our data is used for advertising. It is finally time to make the internet a safe place.

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