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When It Comes To TikTok Hyperventilation, Financial Conflicts Of Interest Abound

DATE POSTED:March 28, 2024

Earlier this month we noted how despite all of the sound, fury, and hyperventilation surrounding the push to ban TikTok, most Americans don’t actually support such a move (you know, the whole representative democracy thing). Support is particularly lacking among young Democrats, a demographic the Biden administration has struggled to connect with in the wake of the ongoing carnage in Gaza.

The fact that this Congress is too corrupt to agree on anything of substance (but was able to quickly get a TikTok ban through the House) already spoke pretty loudly to TikTok creators. But it probably speaks louder still given that data reveals the House Reps that voted for the ban personally own between $29 million and $126 million worth of stock in competing tech companies that directly stand to benefit.

Of the 352 members of the House of Representatives who voted “yes” on the bill, 44 reported they own shares of companies including Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft, and Snap. Tracking their exact stock ownership total is tricky, in part, because Congress successfully crushed efforts to make their financial disclosures more easily searchable, notes Quartz:

“Some members file their financial disclosures by hand, and that information isn’t present in the data set. There are several other caveats to consider. Members of Congress have to report stock transactions within 45 days and disclose their overall stock holdings annually. Because there’s a grace period in both cases, the most recent information dates back to earlier this year, before the TikTok vote. Officials also don’t have to report the exact value of these investments, but instead have to disclose a range ($15,001 to $50,000 of Microsoft stock, for example). The value of the stocks has also changed since reports were filed.”

A TikTok ban also benefits military contractors and tech companies keen on seeing greater and broader animosity between the United States and China in order to sell more weaponry, automation, and surveillance technology.

The Intercept, for example, notes that Jacob Helberg, an extremely vocal supporter of the ban TikTok movement, is both a former advisor to Google, a member of the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, and a current advisor at the military contractor Palantir.

Helberg’s rhetoric on TikTok is not subtle:

“TikTok is a scourge attacking our children and our social fabric, a threat to our national security, and likely the most extensive intelligence operation a foreign power has ever conducted against the United States.”

There’s a large segment of these folks who freak out about TikTok, but ignore not only the same type of abuses by U.S. companies, but the same kind of abuses from international companies where U.S. interests might financially tethered; including the vast data broker industry whose ethics-optional monetization of consumer location, behavior, and other data is the source of endless scandals.

Unfortunately it’s an era where even being marginally transparent about your financial conflicts of interest has become… passé:

“It is a clear conflict-of-interest to have an advisor to Palantir serve on a commission that is making sensitive recommendations about economic and security relations between the U.S. and China,” said Bill Hartung, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and scholar of the U.S. defense industry. “From their perspective, China is a mortal adversary and the only way to ‘beat’ them is to further subsidize the tech sector so we can rapidly build next generation systems that can overwhelm China in a potential conflict — to the financial benefit of Palantir and its Silicon Valley allies.”

Getting the greater gerontocracy in DC agitated about China has long been trivial for lobbyists, as one such hill advisor noted back in 2012 during the sustained freak out about Huawei (a not insubstantial chunk of which was driven by telecom competitors like Cisco):

“What happens is you get competitors who are able to gin up lawmakers who are already wound up about China,” said one Hill staffer who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter. “What they do is pull the string and see where the top spins.”

It’s also relatively trivial for these kinds of folks to publish various op-eds at outlets like The Hill without disclosing financial conflicts of interests. Lawyers working for law firms doing lobbying and policy work routinely publish missives under their own name, while doing lobbying work on the side. That their arguments frequently stem from an obvious financial conflict of interest is, apparently, of no note.

Facebook has seen success for several years seeding various moral panics about TikTok around DC with the help of policy and PR firms like Targeted Victory. It’s pretty clear Facebook’s interest isn’t in privacy or national security, but in using both concerns as bludgeons to eliminate a direct competitor the company has, so far, proven incapable of out-innovating in the short-form video space.

That’s not to say that there aren’t meaningful national security issues at play, or people in DC who pursue national security issues in good faith. But they’re certainly and clearly outnumbered.

It’s clear that if lawmakers really cared about national security, they wouldn’t be supporting a multiple-indictment facing NYC real estate con man for President. If Congress really cared about consumer privacy, they’d pass a privacy law that applies to all companies and regulate data brokers, who routinely sell U.S. consumer data to foreign intelligence agencies.

Instead you sort of get a sort of lobbyist-driven, vibes-based, legislative process where the public interest is a distant afterthought, and even the most rudimentary transparency is simply a bridge too far.