“There is a lot of political fervor over TikTok and its connections to the Chinese government, and this is coming out in the form of these perhaps symbolic bans,” said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Those limitations suggested that Auburn was making more of a statement than a new policy.”
Cancel culture of both the left and right meet at the convenient doorstep of the other, China, in the halls of what arguably should be the most protected zone for free speech in the United States: its colleges and universities. Censorship has its requisite foe. With the magician’s sleight of hand, these bans transform bald-faced censorship into a sudden awareness of security risks.
Let’s discuss. A legal guidance is necessary to make clear whether government bans on the use of TikTok on government devices and networks apply to higher education. That broader legal question has long been a slippery slope for state institutions. Decades went into the question, for example, on whether Americans With Disabilities Act regulations for the federal and state government required compliance among state colleges and universities. I am not sure that issue ever got fully settled until the Obama administration pushed regulations clearly down the Title path of the legislation to sections II and III, effectively ending the debate.
Psycho-political analysis might help us see how this stampede is taking shape. Real and perceived American concerns about the People’s Republic have coalesced into the only issue upon which our benighted political parties can find common ground. No surprise that the first committee formed in this new Congress centers on this point, House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party. Anti-Communism held the Republican Party together through much of the second half of the 20th century. As we watch the GOP ricochet between its big money elites and its angry grassroots, why not resurrect a tried and true formula to keep the peace? And signal a bipartisan gesture as flourish?
Histrionics are the problem with this composition. Real issues do exist in the calculus between the U.S. and the PRC geopolitically, socially and economically. Overheating about a popular application on the internet distracts from the deeper thinking that needs take shape around how to address military testiness and global competition. Far be it from the Republican Party to be histrionic, however, and I am being as sarcastic as I know how to be in print. From the local congressional race I personally experienced to the masters—Trump, Bannon, Jordan—99 percent of what comes out their mouths is nothing but drama, obscuring and displacing the possibility of more nuanced thought. Democrats, eager to appear “bipartisan,” better watch their step not to compete in seeing who can scream the loudest.
Enter hypocrisy, if not idiocy, of the highest order. Myriad groups, for example the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and individuals (and yes, I count myself among them) have been preaching privacy and security issues from the rooftops for at least a generation of sustained discussion on this front. Now, all of a sudden, we have awareness on the part of Congress, state elected officials including governors and higher education administrators that roosts on blocking the ports to a popular app on the internet? With nothing else to say about precisely what those security and privacy issues are apart from generalizations about how applications scrape and use data? Someone in China has access to what a coed at Auburn University likes to watch on TikTok? With no rules around how that data is gathered technologically (i.e., algorithmic design), managed professionally (Sold to advertisers? Delivered on silver platters to Chairman Xi?), or secured administratively (what are the rules?). We might hear echoes of our own circumstances. These challenges are exactly what we face in the United States in the gap that exists between consumers and tech companies. Mirror, mirror on the wall …
Had I not dedicated the lion’s share of my career life to higher education, I might just sit back and laugh. But I cannot. I actually took my career direction seriously (and wrote a dissertation, let us not forget, on Catholic women’s higher education, which was an enterprise that knew something about devotion) and therefore must speak out. Students, faculty, administrators, alumni, stand up in protest to this ridiculous and dangerous rhinoceros. If ever there was an educational moment for us to learn and teach about privacy and security, TikTok provides a most excellent example. We in higher education should take every opportunity to exploit it. We set a very bad precedent, however, to leap over the unique work we can do to educate and instead jump on the censorship bandwagon. Jump off, Auburn, and any other institution headed down that path. Remember your missions! Freedom of thought and speech are both drivers and values necessary to make those missions work. And don’t you let any politician knock you off that mantle that is yours and ours to cherish.