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Regulating tech in the age of TikTok

The House committee on information and communications technology is working on a bill that will regulate facial recognition technology (FRT). Rep. Ruffy Biazon, principal author, thinks FRT has “huge implications on privacy and personal security.” Computer Vision, the Artificial Intelligence (AI) that underpins FRT, is driven by the same algorithms as those of TikTok.

FRT is an efficient tool for public safety. It helps law enforcement by automating identification. TikTok is fun and even educational. But some feel that TikTok and FRT together are dangerous, so much so that the Trump administration had tried to ban TikTok. India has also banned TikTok outright. What makes this short-video app so dangerous?

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To answer this, we need to zoom out.

We are in the midst of an economic and cyber war. The Chinese government has continued blocking outside apps and content with its Great Firewall. The United States has imposed restrictions on Chinese manufacturers like Huawei and launched a “Clean Network” program that aims to ring-fence the United States and its partners from Chinese equipment, apps, and networks.

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According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s latest report, ByteDance’s TikTok and Tencent’s WeChat are both subject to Chinese laws and regulations, including the National Intelligence Law, which allows information to be obtained from app users for national security reasons. The report said both apps could be used to further the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda agenda, which includes censorship.

WeChat and TikTok have to enforce the domestic rules and regulations of the countries in which they operate. But as Chinese companies, they would apply the same concepts of censorship and legal intercept: internet governance with Chinese characteristics.

Censorship and legal intercept are powerful tools used for propaganda and law enforcement. All states use these tools, in one way or another, to protect its citizens. The major differences are in the coverage, degree, means of enforcement, and due process applied by the state. Even the United States, the bastion of individual freedoms, exercises these powers under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and USA Freedom Act.

With borders no longer just geographical but also digital, how should data be treated? Should Chinese apps follow state laws even if they are used outside China? To enforce the lèse majesté law of Thailand, do platforms block all content negative toward the Thai King in the whole internet universe?

Like China, any state can argue that it is within its right to enforce domestic rules and norms over online platforms regardless of where they operate. This situation could lead to the further bifurcation of the internet. The forced sale of Bytedance US and the Clean Network program are signs of digital borders being drawn. The borders are not just between the United States and China; it’s Russia, India, Indonesia… and many others, including the Philippines.

A powerful tool that can level the policy playing field is algorithmic transparency, which entails that decisions made by automated systems (such as AI and machine learning) must be open to the public, including how decisions are made and, if they fail, why they failed.

There are a number of efforts to define transparency principles, such as the Asilomar AI Principles and ACM’s Principles on Algorithmic Transparency and Accountability. Even our own Data Privacy Act of 2012 provides for a data subject’s right to know about automated processes. The better we understand how algorithms work, the better we can manage them. While we will still debate over free speech and privacy versus security, algorithmic clarity is a good first step.

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Should we immediately regulate new technology? Congress has already given us a guiding framework through the DPA: Follow the path toward openness, transparency, and clarity. This will catalyze both trust and innovation.

(With inputs from Sam Chittick and Grace Mirandilla-Santos)

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William Emmanuel Yu, Ph.D., is a technology professional, professor, and researcher who is a passionate advocate of shaping internet and technology policy. He is part of Secure Connections, a cybersecurity project of The Asia Foundation-Philippines. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Asia Foundation-Philippines.

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TAGS: censorship, facial recognition technology, intelligence, internet, opinion, Technology
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