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TikTok crossroads an opprotuity to get ahead of curve

By Xu Ying | | Updated: 2024-03-15 16:15
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US flag and TikTok logo are seen in this illustration taken, June 2, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

The meteoric rise of TikTok, the innovative video-sharing platform created by the Chinese technology company ByteDance, represents a watershed achievement in the annals of global digital media and connectivity. Amassing a staggering user base of over 1.7 billion across nearly every corner of the world, TikTok has realized what was once considered an improbability - a bona fide social media juggernaut emanating not from Silicon Valley, but from the Chinese internet sector.  

This paradigm shift has reverberated powerfully in the theaters of geopolitics, economic competitiveness, and the delicate equilibrium between national security and flourishing digital globalization. As TikTok's international popularity and cross-border data flows continue expanding, it has increasingly found itself under intense scrutiny and escalating regulatory pressures, particularly from the United States as they are wary of the platform's Chinese ownership.

Skeptics have sounded alarms that TikTok's recommendation algorithms and user data troves could be exploited as insidious tools for China - whether for espionage and surveillance, extraterritorial censorship and social control, or deploying digital propaganda campaigns. These critics point to China's sweeping legal provisions compelling data-sharing cooperation from its domestic private enterprises as justification for treating ByteDance'sTikTok as an impermissible security risk.

Hardline voices have thus coalesced around calls for severe unilateral restrictions or outright prohibition of the app within their jurisdictions as the only viable path for mitigating such dangers. Some frame this in starkly existential terms - casting TikTok as a Trojan horse for the Chinese "malign influence operations" aimed at undermining Western societies from within.  

Approaching complex technological developments through overly simplistic bifurcations or blanket bans will unlikely yield durable solutions. Not only do such draconian measures disrupt and alienate the billions globally who have embraced TikTok as a positive force for creativity and connectivity, they also carry significant risks of catalyzing destabilizing technology "decoupling" and escalation spirals detrimental to all parties.    

There is an alternative pathway forward - one which adeptly balances prudent risk mitigation with the immense societal benefits enabled by participatory global digital platforms. It resides in eschewing unilateral actions and doubling down on principled multilateralism.

Any concerns around data security, foreign influence or exploitation vulnerabilities should be investigated and adjudicated not through heated accusation or political theater, but via credible, facts-driven processes upholding due process and transparency. If substantive evidence of violations emerges, appropriate legal and regulatory mechanisms can be leveraged to compel meaningful reforms or compliance safeguards - with emphasis on pragmatic compromise preserving core functionalities.  

Governments must resist the urge toward rash unilateral decrees disconnected from the complexities of a globalized digital world. Sustainable solutions will remain elusive without extensive coordination between stakeholders committed to upholding not just narrow national interests, but collective norms and universal human values.

Establishing durable international frameworks for harmonizing online data governance, privacy standards, platform transparency and judicious content moderation should be the endgame. Diverse stakeholders - from nation states to technology firms, civil society groups and global bodies like the United Nations - must be brought into thoughtful dialogue investing equities toward workable long-term systems for coexistence.   

Fundamentally, the present crossroads surrounding TikTok must be recognized as an opportunity to get ahead of the curve - responsibly governing revolutionary technologies reshaping globalization before insular unilateralism shatters the open digital ecosystems so integral to human progress and cross-cultural engagement.

Prudence and nuance rather than politically expedient escalations should be the watchwords as regulators tackle complex technological shifts. After all, the internet itself was not so long ago viewed with paralytic anxieties over its democratizing disruptive potentials before maturing into the connectivity bedrock of the modern world.     

With deft statesmanship, a spirit of cooperative resolve, and patient confidence in universally-applied principles of online privacy, security and transparency - both China's legitimate equities and the collective interests of our integrated global community can be upheld through this precarious inflection point. The alternative leads only toward regressive fragmentation, escalatory confrontations and an inexorable diminution of mutual prosperity.

The author is a Beijing-based commentator.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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