Online safety begins with the user



The Manila Times


EARLIER this week, the US government issued an ultimatum to Beijing-based social media company ByteDance, demanding that it divest itself of the popular shortvideo app TikTok or be banned from doing business in the United States entirely. It is widely believed by US officials, not entirely without justification, that ByteDance’s close ties to the Chinese government present a grave security risk, allowing the popular app — which has over 100 million users in the US — to be used as a tool in spycraft. The latest pronouncement by the federal government follows a series of actions to constrain TikTok, including a ban on its being used or installed on any government devices, or being used by government employees. At least 14 US states have imposed similar measures, and in recent news reports, a number of major universities have also announced bans on TikTok, or said that they were considering banning it. All of this may appear to be a bit hysterical from our perspective, particularly since there is a clear political motive to the US government’s attack on TikTok. It does, however, draw attention to concerns about eroding security and safety online, not just with TikTok but thousands of other apps as well, regardless of where they come from. Filipinos are voracious consumers of online media, and are particularly at risk, a worry that was highlighted in a story in the Manila Times on Friday, which sounded the alarm about the rapid proliferation of fraudulent social media posts and ads offering medical advice or marketing dubious products. For those in the Philippines who might be concerned about whether the risks of “being spied on by the Chinese government” described by US officials pose a threat to TikTok users here, professor Graham Webster of the Stanford University Cyber Policy Research Institute injected some common sense into the debate, in a video interview published online on Wednesday by the Huffington Post. According to Webster, there is not much evidence that the Chinese government is using TikTok to harvest data on users and whomever they may be connected to, nor that China or anyone else is using TikTok’s algorithm to manipulate content, at least not outside of China itself. However, the app certainly could be used for those purposes, so the risk, while it has not manifested into a real threat, does exist. For the average user, Webster said, this probably should not be a cause for alarm, provided the user exercises normal good judgment in what he or she views or interacts with. For critics of China, particularly people with family or other ties to the country, that may be a different story. Webster’s point about users exercising good judgment is the part of the TikTok controversy that should be emphasized. The Stanford researcher stressed that TikTok is not particularly unique; a great many of the risks attributed to it are also present in any of the thousands of online apps that are available and which we have come to take for granted. The worrisome story about the epidemic of fake medical posts and products is a good example of how online apps can be manipulated in harmful ways. None of this is news to our regulators here, of course, and they do exert a great deal of effort to promote and safeguard the public’s online access and activities. However, regulation has limits, just as Stanford’s Webster stressed; the environment that needs to be regulated is simply too large and growing too quickly for any government to manage, short of through drastic, freedom-quashing means such as blocking access to whole sections of the internet. The only real solution that allows people the freedom of access and choice they deserve, prevents the sort of political friction the recent US move provokes and provides a reasonable level of safety for online media consumers is to intensify efforts to educate the public to use apps and online information safely. For example, educational programs could be developed for schools and made part of the curriculum, which, if designed correctly, could have a significant positive impact, as most consumers of platforms such as TikTok are young people. Other communication programs targeting older people in a user-friendly way should also be developed.