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Frances Haugen is the co-founder of Beyond the Screen, and a senior fellow-in-residence at the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University. Taylor Owen is the Beaverbrook Chair in Media, Ethics and Communication and the director of the Centre for Media, Technology and Democracy at McGill University.

The expulsion of Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei for allegedly targeting a Canadian member of Parliament, as well as the broad findings of former governor-general David Johnston’s report into Chinese interference in Canadian democracy, have accelerated an understanding of the scope and severity of the problem. There can no longer be any doubt that China has sought to influence Canadian elections, inflame social divisions, corrupt institutions and target diaspora communities.

At the same time, though, millions of Canadians use TikTok, a massively popular Chinese viral video-sharing platform. In China, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance falls under the purview of a 2017 law that compels companies to hand over platforms’ user data if Beijing deems them relevant to Chinese security. This has raised serious concerns in Canada as elsewhere, causing Ottawa and most of the provinces to prohibit TikTok on government-owned devices. This has also led public institutions – including McGill University – to do the same. These bans echo similar, albeit more extreme, ones in the United States, where there is growing cross-partisan support for efforts to either outright ban TikTok or force divestment of its U.S. operations. Other countries have gone even further, most notably India, where TikTok has been banned since 2020.

Concerns about the platform are certainly not ill-founded. There is a serious privacy problem stemming from the access that the Chinese government has to Canadian user data. Much like many other social-media platforms, TikTok collects extensive data about its users, but unlike Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, for example, Chinese companies report to the governing Communist Party of China (CCP). In fact, a New York Times article recently revealed that a former ByteDance executive has accused the company, as part of a wrongful-termination suit, of offering the CCP what he calls “supreme access” to user data. This indicates that despite the company’s denials, the Chinese government is indeed able to obtain the vast stores of information collected on Canadians’ phones. Particularly worrying are revelations that these data have already been weaponized by TikTok employees, including to track journalists in the U.S.

What’s more, TikTok has mastered serving its users the content they think they want to see. This content is pulled from a relatively small catalogue of videos flagged by the company to go viral, in a process known as “heating.” This means that the company has tremendous power to shape and influence the content that users engage with. This practice is particularly troubling given that China’s mainland equivalent of TikTok, an app called Douyin, tends to show users educational videos, whereas the same algorithms push dance videos to North American users. In a world of mis- and disinformation, it’s clear that this leaves the Canadian information ecosystem vulnerable to new vectors of foreign interference. We should be concerned about the risk of an adversarial government having a say about the content Canadians are fed online.

Perhaps most concerning is the influence that TikTok has on youth, who comprise a majority of the platform’s Canadian user base. While all social-media platforms are designed to maximize either user engagement or the amount of time spent on their apps, and have all been clearly shown to have wide-ranging negative consequences on kids, TikTok is particularly pernicious. The power of the TikTok algorithm has been shown to fuel social-media addiction, leading to poor mental and physical health. And while usage data are closely guarded by the company, Canadians’ habits almost certainly parallel those of Americans, and the average American teenager spends 113 minutes a day scrolling on the app. TikTok is an incredibly addictive app. Despite TikTok’s recent rollout of screen-time controls for users under the age of 18, these tools merely reinforce conventional beliefs that suggest that screen time alone is the problem. In this case as in others, there are structural design decisions within the app that need to be addressed.

Still, in view of all of these clear risks, an outright ban on TikTok is premature. Millions of Canadians use, enjoy and derive great benefits from TikTok, especially for identity formation, community building and social interaction. In fact, an all-out ban of this popular platform could be seen as an undue limitation on free speech. While there are certainly harmful attributes of TikTok, actions to minimize these must be balanced against the tremendous amount of free expression that also occurs on the platform. A blanket ban is likely an overcorrection.

If democratic countries replicate China’s tendency to block access to foreign media platforms, this could further empower illiberal regimes to restrict citizens’ access to the open web, and contribute to a more fractured internet. What’s more, other social-media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter, pose similar risks to Canadians, and we certainly can’t ban them all.

Instead of a ban, the question we should be asking is: Can we minimize the harms caused by social-media platforms, while also maximizing the rights of their users?

The answer is a clear yes. And better yet, it can be accomplished by simply passing the online safety and privacy legislation that the government has already committed to. The advantage of this approach is that the very things we can do to protect Canadians from the risks of TikTok and Chinese state influence will also protect them from similar harms from other platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube.

First, Ottawa can start with passing its long-overdue updates to the Consumer Privacy Protection Act, which form the front half of Bill C-27. These amendments would usher in more sophisticated data privacy for Canadians, including long-awaited protections for children and youth whose data would be importantly classified as “sensitive information,” and would also provide a framework for the right to deletion of data collected on minors. These provisions would certainly increase the protection of users’ data from undue collection by the CCP, while holding all social-media platforms accountable and transparent in their data-collection practices.

Second, the government needs to table the online safety legislation that it has been working on for months. Holding platforms to account for keeping Canadians safe while they use their products should involve requiring them to conduct product risk assessments, to implement best practices to mitigate identifiable risks, to provide extensive data about their systems to researchers, and to allow a regulator to audit their operations. Ultimately, these approaches would mandate that platforms no longer place profit before user safety. In TikTok’s case, these provisions would force the company to be more upfront about the way its system works, which would importantly include stipulating how Canadians’ data are stored and handled. Federal legislation could also follow a growing number of jurisdictions around the world taking “child-centred” approaches to online safety regulation. This could include requiring privacy-by-default for children’s accounts, putting additional limitations on children’s data collection, halting the algorithmic targeting of kids for advertising purposes, and mandating the takedown of child sexual abuse material.

Third, the government should actually engage with young Canadians about what kind of internet they want. Rather than leaving kids to the Wild West of an unregulated digital world, as we have done for too long, we should be working with them to design better solutions.

Regulating TikTok is a much more desirable way to bring about a safer online environment than an outright ban. Not only would it help protect Canadians from Chinese interference in our democracy and minimize the societal harms of TikTok, it would also address related concerns about other platforms as well. It would provide a more stable democratic operating environment for all online media platforms, regardless of their national origins. Canada has the tools; now, it just needs to act.