TikTok: Trump Can’t Dance

TikTok: Trump Can’t Dance

TikTok is just as important to visual art and artists as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and other specific art related communities on the Web. Trump wants to dump it or force a fire sale to Microsoft. And then, he wants Microsoft to pay the U.S. Treasury more on the theory that his threat got them a bargain price — which is actually insane.

TikTok is special because of the age of its users, which skews under 20, and the community they have built there.

TikTok and its immediacy makes it incredibly responsive to trends and what’s happening. It’s free, accessible from any phone and simple to use. The type and age of the creators, the artists on TikTok, raise a special responsibility to preserve their space if possible.

Trump is pissed off at TikTok for the ham-fisted unsophisticated proto-mob boss pay back reason that it was used by hundreds of thousands of teenagers to mess up his 2020 campaign launch rally in Tulsa. By stealth but still in very large numbers they quickly passed the word through TikTok for people to order up tickets to the rally – – which they would never use. Trump thought a million wanted tickets and in the end only 6,000 showed for a venue designed to hold 20,000. Whatever Trump says, no one from ByteDance in China (the company that created TikTok) was pulling strings. No Chinese government operatives were involved. Given the scale of traffic on TikTok, I’d be willing to bet that the whole thing happened without even TikTok’s American managers noticing until after it all came down.

Donald’s doppelganger does that TikTok thing.
Dancing on that star power as fast as his double can.

Trump says he will shut down TikTok if necessary.

As a lawyer I can say with some confidence given his motivations, that’s unconstitutional. But if he finds a way to do it technically (a big if) it will take years going through the courts. Meanwhile, he will effectively suppress political speech for a group that has proven itself wanting to speak out negatively on his campaign. Political speech happens to be the most protected kind under the Constitution.

Artists should care because TikTok is a vibrant art form; not because they oppose or support Trump or are susceptible to his xenophobic fear mongering. Artists should care because TikTok is a communication tool with broad worldwide reach. For the music business it’s the most exciting marketing tool they’ve had in decades. For every single high school kid with an interest in visual media it’s an opportunity to be creative, try things out and see what your peers and maybe even others think of your work. If you like dance, well it’s the new home of a thousand and one dances.

Or maybe the younger Donald could do this and now he’s just jealous of the folks having fun on TikTok,
The Donald is huge on TikTok. Photographer: Joshua Wattles
Showing off for all the autocrats.

So as the Trump administration and European bureaucrats try to demonize TikTok and threaten to block it, artists should pay attention.

The more legitimate issue around TikTok seems to be the collection of user data. TikTok pulls information on what a user looks at, the frequency and times of use, characteristics of favored content, the proportion of content submission versus browsing, the devices the user has, their location plus more and it then creates correlations between users, profiles and content. ByteDance, a Chinese company with many American based investors, built TikTok. ByteDance, is reported to have the largest and most advanced artificial intelligence laboratories in the world. It may be using TikTok in social experiments attempting to create mass mood changes. It reportedly designed algorithms that can push content to users likely to create happiness and joy just to see if, in fact, users would then self-select similar content disproportionately.

Sounds a bit creepy. But stop for a second. First, how cool is it that the experiment went to the light? By contrast, the Russians flooded and targeted susceptible Facebook users with hateful mis-information designed to cause division.

Photographer: visuals | Source: Unsplash

Second, manipulation of emotions through media, aside from being the cornerstone of many forms of entertainment and visual art, became a science and a data game more than half a century ago at the direction of the advertising business. The ByteDance AI might be used to convince the people of Hong Kong to love the police state they are about to become (and if the algorithm can, I expect ByteDance will be well paid) but how much different is that than Murdoch’s Fox News empire changing the definition of news into right wing propaganda; much of it completely false, divisive and recently quite deadly?

Third, not a single technologist has described TikTok doing anything other than a much lighter version of what Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google apps will do to pull information from your device even when you think its sleeping. Their data on you, and there are piles of it, are sold or made available to others in various ways and forms a user profile frightening in its detail. So far, there are no reports of TikTok selling data, by the way.

There is a real debate about controlling use of so-called private and personal data.

But for now, this is how these machines function. Do you really think Adobe isn’t pulling all kinds of data off your Creative Suite while you’re attached to the Adobe Cloud?

The argument is made that American-trained legal departments and a variety of privacy laws protect user data in the hands of U.S. companies. Sorry, not really. Privacy laws in the rest of the “western” world are much stronger than those in the U.S. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and particularly smaller less robust tech companies cooperate with law enforcement when they think its responsible to do so; frequently without alerting the user and without subpoenas. They might deny it, if that makes you comfortable. But they all use the data to sell you stuff; to convince you to do things you would not otherwise care about; and, more importantly, to follow you around on the Web and IRL.

We know for a fact that in the 2016 election cycle Facebook sold access to user data to Cambridge Analytica to target political advertising and we’re not just talking here about a list of usernames.

Big tech companies American style absorb everything they can about a user. They pull software usage data, read messages, emails, catalog your purchases, pull your contact lists and listen in and record from devices like phones, Echo, Alexa and Ring security systems, breaking down transcripts and applying image recognition. Microsoft didn’t just buy LinkedIn to find employees. They bought the data. They have my resume. If they get TikTok, they’ll have even more data on more users.

Why all the “spying” and aren’t you being totally paranoid?

To these companies it’s not spying at all. It’s a scientific and technological challenge to generate and pull the data and an even greater challenge to learn how to sort it, interpret it and ultimately apply it. The motivation is to show off engineering virtuosity and as such this seemingly sanitizes the whole exercise as science and not theft. More importantly, the data is just there. The devices produce it as part of their “natural” function. Why trash it when it can be put to good use? You need GPS to find that restaurant. GPS to function on demand pings satellites multiple times even when your device is resting. Why shouldn’t the GPS data (where you go and when) be used as another random data point in your profile? Why should it go to waste?

The biggest stars use TikTok

The general attack on TikTok (not Trump’s) isn’t about preserving your privacy or stopping apps from pulling your data. They fear the TikTok data is going to China! OMFG.

TikTok’s American company denies that the data currently goes there, and maybe their response is semantics about where the data is stored, which is different from where it might flow. TikTok also denies using invasive tactics to pull content from its users’ devices and no other source, including the U.S. government, has presented contrary facts. It is certainly likely that the app has poor security features but that’s the case for so many other apps that scale quickly, like TikTok. Assume the truth is more nuanced. China already plays intimately in our daily lives. 90% of the stuff in your house comes from there (or Ikea). The devices you are using are built there. China is a major trading partner. Is data somehow different than your order information on toasters, phones, couches, clothing, lamps and that irresistible gadget on Instagram? China’s got all that and more.

Biden has banned people working on his campaign from using TikTok, the British secret service and US intelligence say it’s a bad thing, many companies are wiping it from their devices and American and many European governments recommend the same. Why: the convergence of opportunity, xenophobia and competitive spite.

They are deleting TikTok because they can — it performs no critical functions — and they want to mess with a world-scale Chinese social tech play. What they can’t do and don’t even want to do is delete Microsoft apps, Google, Facebook, iTunes, YouTube, Twitter, Amazon and so forth. Those build crazy personal data farms far more “dangerous” than information on who watches the latest dance moves by a 14yr old. Getting TikTok banned or forcing a sale to an American company is also just deserts for U.S.tech. China blocks many social networks and those it doesn’t are required to store all Chinese generated data in China.

To be clear, security concerns and data storage wars are much too nuanced for Trump. He just sees a community of folks who are out to get him on the election and he wants them shut up or shut down.

What’s the difference between someone in San Jose or Shanghai building a user profile on you? When you sort through that question, try not to resolve to either a racist or nativist conclusion.

TikTok is on the street because it is the quickest most stripped down tech to get your stuff out there to a massive audience. You only need your phone. That’s only sinister to the entrenched media, tech competitors and government operatives. To artists, its gold standard cultural immediacy!

Save it.

Written by Joshua Wattles

Josh Wattles

Joshua S. Wattles has a distinguished decades-long career as an attorney, business executive and law professor in the entertainment, communications and technology sectors. Most recently, he was Advisor-in-Chief to DeviantArt.com, an online community for visual artists and their user-generated content ranked by traffic as one of the top 150 websites in the world, where he spearheaded its successful multi-million dollar acquisition by Wix.com (NASDAQ). Mr. Wattles has a varied career as a lawyer, executive and academic in the film, television, music, visual art, Internet and technology fields. He was the deputy and acting general counsel of Paramount Pictures. At Paramount, where he worked for eleven years starting in 1981, he was responsible for the studio’s highest profile talent and content agreements as well as major litigations. He advised the Chairman and all division Presidents on legal matters and managed the more than 60 lawyers operating throughout the company. His litigation experience includes managing the infamous Art Buchwald “net profits” case brought against Paramount on the film “Coming to America.” He was also the senior intellectual property lawyer for Paramount Communications advising film, book publishing, sports and cable television units and was a key architect of the film industry’s anti-piracy programs in the transition to videocassettes. With executives at Universal Pictures, he created the industry’s collective licensing organization for cable and satellite retransmissions of television programs and films in the EU. Josh Wattles’ background in the music industry began right out of law school as an in-house litigator for the American Society of Composers Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) where he worked on the first Copyright Royalty Tribunal proceedings in the United States. At Paramount, concurrently with his legal positions, he ran all of its music operations including the production of soundtracks and its significant music publishing interests, The Famous Music Publishing Companies. He acquired the Duke Ellington catalog and doubled the gross and net revenues of the publishing companies. He helped create the business and legal structure for the modern film soundtrack with the groundbreaking contributions of Flashdance, Footloose, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun and numerous others. He shared responsibility for breaking the longest running number 1 single in history, End of the Road, by Boyz 2 Men. After twelve years at the studio, Mr. Wattles became involved in a number of early-stage Internet ventures. He is the founding President of Mixonic.com, an on-line CD and DVD replication company, sold last year to a long time competitor, and he designed and developed the strategy and technology for the most disruptive play the ringtone space, Xingtone, subsequently funded and acquired by Siemens AG. His association with DeviantArt as its chief business and legal advisor began as a pro bono project at the very beginning of the website’s launch 18 years ago. Hejoined DeviantArt full time nine years ago. In his private legal practice, Mr. Wattles was of counsel most recently to Bingham, McCutchen, then a large international firm. His clients over the years include major studios, such as MGM, Fox and Televisa as well as prominent artists including J.K.Rowling, the author and creator of Harry Potter. He participated in MGM v. Grokster, an attack on open Internet distribution of content which progressed to the United States Supreme Court, in which he represented the opposite side to the entertainment industry as counsel to LimeWire and to the developers of the Gnutella protocols who appeared together as amicus. He also represented Michael Robertson, a prominent technology entrepreneur, in copyright litigations with the music industry. He was the lead entertainment and copyright lawyer on Televisa’s litigation team in a significant contract and copyright case against Univision that went to trial in Los Angeles. Mr. Wattles is a Lecturer in Law in Advanced Copyright at USC’s Gould School of Law and previously taught, as an adjunct, the copyright course at Southwestern University Law School and at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He has also taught full courses in Entertainment Law, in Art Law and in Music Publishing Law. He continues to lecture and speak at many other schools and professional organizations, most recently as an invited panelist at the ABA 33rd Annual Intellectual Law Conference held in Arlington, VA. His presentation on Fan Art Law at Comic Con International has over 180,000 views on YouTube. He is past President of the Los Angeles Copyright Society. Before attending law school and as an activist artist, he was co-founder of one of the very first programs providing legal services to artists, Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts, which morphed into Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts. Mr. Wattles’ law degree is from George Washington University Law School. He received his bachelor’s degree from Mills College in Oakland, California, cum laude, in American Studies, where he was Phi Beta Kappa and is still distinguished as the only male ever awarded an undergraduate degree by the college.  Mr. Wattles also attended the University of California, Berkeley.  He is admitted to practice to the Bars of California (active) and New York (inactive). Contact: Joshua Wattles joshuawattles@gmail.com