The Los Angles Times on TikTok and WeChat:
Even before President Trump signed an executive order that could soon smother social network TikTok, Microsoft emerged as a potential savior for the U.S.-based but Chinese-owned video snacking service. Now, Twitter and several investment companies are also reportedly talking to TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, about possibly taking over the social network and keeping it going.
That may seem like sweet blessed relief to the network’s estimated 100 million active U.S. users and especially the entrepreneurs who have made a career out of TikTok videos. But while new, non-Chinese ownership would remove some privacy and security concerns, it would also highlight the weaknesses in U.S. law and the ongoing vulnerability of smartphone app users.
Invoking powers granted by Congress to respond to emergencies, Trump issued orders Aug. 6 that will bar U.S. companies and consumers from doing business with TikTok and WeChat, a messaging service owned by China’s Tencent Holdings, starting in mid-September. The bans seem less like defenses against extraordinary new threats than punches thrown in the larger trade battle between Trump and China. TikTok, after all, is wildly popular here (WeChat far less so; it has roughly one-tenth of TikTok’s active U.S. users), and Trump’s order could make it hard to impossible for the company to reach new users or send updates to existing users.
The president’s ability to threaten the livelihood of a U.S.-based and U.S.-managed company without anything approaching due process is chilling. Yet there are real concerns about TikTok’s data collection practices and its current owner — concerns strong enough to have prompted both houses of Congress to call for the app to be banned on government-issued phones.
TikTok seems innocuous enough: Its users tend to be young people, and the videos (which last from 15 seconds to 1 minute) mainly feature dancing, storytelling or people mocking something. But the app collects an enormous amount of data about its users — not just what they watch while they’re on TikTok, but about such things as the phone they’re using, other apps that have been installed and the online address of the network they’re using.
The implication is that through TikTok, China could assemble a detailed profile of its users and their movements. Do they have sensitive health or dating apps on their phone? That information might be used as blackmail fodder. Do they connect to networks on military bases, or have pictures of military sites? That’s a potential national security risk.
Granted, plenty of app makers vacuum data off their users’ phones. And it’s standard operating practice for social networks to use personal data to power algorithms that tailor their news feeds — the “For You” streams in TikTok’s case — to their users’ preferences. And unlike, say, Facebook, TikTok doesn’t really need to know who your friends are or what they’re up to.
But here is where the China angle comes in. Although TikTok is based in Culver City and it users’ data is stored primarily in the United States, its owner is in China, as are the developers of some of its technology.
TikTok insists that it’s never turned over data to China, but its owners can’t just say “no” if Chinese authorities demand the information for national security reasons — or if they insist that ByteDance engineer a “back door” into the app to let them surveil its users. The only way to solve that perceived problem is to cut the connection to China entirely, which is what Trump is trying to make happen.
TikTok users shouldn’t kid themselves about the privacy consequences of a change to U.S. ownership, however. There is no federal law protecting the privacy of user data, other than a broad requirement that companies not mislead the public about their data practices. Hence the transformation of the internet into a rapacious collector of personal information, which is then used as currency by third parties. And when device and app makers have sought to protect personal data through encryption, a series of administrations has accused them of abetting terrorists.
Meanwhile, governments at all levels in the United States have long exploited the gray areas in the law to obtain revealing information about phone users without a warrant. So, too, can foreign governments tap into the river of personal data that flows virtually unimpeded online.
One state offering its residents at least some rights regarding the data collected online is the one where TikTok is headquartered, California. The Legislature enacted a pioneering consumer data privacy law in 2018 that should have inspired Congress to give all Americans a say over the personal data that websites collect and share. The lawmakers who worry about TikTok ought to look closer to home and see how vulnerable smartphone users are to the bad data practices that have become the norm among apps. It’s past time for them to enact a federal digital privacy bill of rights.
The South China Morning Post on the arrest of Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai:
Distrust and suspicion that developed between the media and the police during months of often violent civil unrest are, sadly, far from healed. It resurfaced on Monday during the national security raid on the offices of Apple Daily and the arrests of its owner Jimmy Lai Chee-ying and others. The police operations marked the adoption of a new system under which only journalists from “trusted media outlets” are allowed to report from inside the force’s cordoned off areas. As a result, those barred included foreign wire services and local outlets Stand News and RTHK. The latter was admitted later.
Commissioner Chris Tang Ping-keung has revealed it is a pilot scheme. He defined journalists from “trusted media” as those who had not acted unprofessionally and obstructed officers, and had reported fairly. This is capable of being perceived as highly subjective in practice, and hardly an assurance of objective reporting. Journalists and the public need to know what is meant by “trusted media”. Ahead of the briefing, the force made it known that only selected representatives from “well-known media outlets” would be allowed to attend. In that sense “trusted” might refer to traditional or accredited media. Given that the new policy could undermine press freedom, there is an immediate need for clarification. So it is good to hear that in light of the feedback the police will review their action.
The number of reporters may have been seen as too large to allow them all into the briefing, and the commissioner might have had a point that not everyone wearing the yellow media vests was a reporter. But the “trusted” test does raise issues for press freedom, which is enshrined in the Basic Law. They are articulated in comments by a number of media groups such as the Hong Kong Journalists Association and the News Executives’ Association, which said the admission of only selected journalists to briefings had “further damaged the thin trust between the media and law enforcers”.
It seems the police went into this without taking into account the likely perceptions and optics, which are not helpful to the force, the media or the public. “Trusted media” is a problematic concept. Given the concerns raised, the police should revisit this policy and re-engage news organisations in search of a better solution. After all, the media remain society’s eyes and ears in holding power to account.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel on a proposed coronavirus relief package cutting payroll taxes that finance Social Security and Medicare
Don’t get too comfortable with your Social Security and Medicare.
That’s the warning President Trump sent from his New Jersey golf course Saturday as he announced a package of coronavirus “relief” that turns out to be more of a cynical and cruel campaign stunt.
Here’s why it’s cynical:
- Democrats and even some Republicans are questioning the legality of his new executive orders, which depend in large measure on the voluntary cooperation of employers and cash-strapped state legislatures.
- The “cut” in payroll taxes that finance Social Security and Medicare is actually a deferment that workers or their employers would have to cough up next year. But Trump vowed to make the cut permanent.
- The temporary $400 in weekly supplemental unemployment benefits turns out to be only $300. States would be challenged to kick in another $100, but most legislatures are cash-strapped and forbidden by constitutions or laws to run deficits like the federal government can. They can’t print money either. Trump would filch the $300 of federal money from funds budgeted for natural disasters — in hurricane season no less — and that is certain to be challenged in court.
- The “order” to resume a moratorium on evictions is nothing more than an instruction to government agencies to “consider” whether it needs to be done and to look for money in their existing budgets to help terrified renters.
- The only legally sound step he took waives interest on student loans through Dec. 31 and allows people to defer payments until then. But it applies only to those debts held by the government, not to those owed private banks.
He’s raising false hopes for everyone else. That’s what makes it cruel.
What he actually accomplished was to reinforce the Democratic Party’s persistent accusation that the Republicans intend to destroy Social Security and Medicare. Republican politicians cry foul whenever they hear that, but what Trump said Saturday makes their job of denial that much harder.
This is what he said:
“If victorious on November Third, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax.”
A senior campaign adviser, Erin Perrine, amplified that by tweeting that Trump would “look into terminating the payroll tax permanently in a second term.”
Trump could not do any of that without congressional approval.
The payroll tax funds Social Security, most of Medicare’s hospitalization insurance, and Social Security disability benefits. Even a temporary half-year deferment would eat up some of the programs’ trust funds, and permanent repeal would destroy them.
Congress conceivably could fund them from general revenue (which runs an almost chronic deficit) but Republicans have always opposed that recourse and Democrats don’t like it either. The trust funds are legally pledged revenue for earned benefits; politicians rightfully fear tampering with them. General revenue, on the other hand, must be appropriated by Congress each year. The nation’s most important social safety nets would become as vulnerable as cobwebs in a gale if they became uncoupled from their earmarked revenues.
Social Security’s trustees estimate it will exhaust its accumulated surpluses in 2034. Medicare’s Hospitalization Insurance Trust Fund will run dry in 2026; whoever is elected president this year had better see to refreshing it.
In either event, Congress would have to reduce benefits or raise taxes — the same taxes that Trump has promised to cut.
It can be taken for granted that the White House switchboard was deluged Saturday with frantic calls from endangered Republican congressional candidates. In response, Trump’s surrogates took to the Sunday talk shows to try to spin what he said.
For example, Larry Kudlow, his chief economic adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Nation” that Trump would “protect Social Security and Medicare” and that only the payroll tax deferral would be made permanent.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised, apparently without consulting Congress, that this year’s lost revenue would be replaced by “an automatic” general fund contribution.
But Trump himself hasn’t taken back what came out of his mouth. Should he try to, that bell can’t be unrung.
Unguarded remarks speak more truths than any retractions. The truth about Trump is either that he simply doesn’t understand Social Security and Medicare as a president should, or that he has been brainwashed by extreme ideologues into wanting to repeal them.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, wrote in 1954 that if any political party attempted to abolish social security, among other essential programs, “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”
Payroll taxes don’t even belong in any rational discussion of relief for people slammed economically by COVID-19. They are paid only by those who are working and by their employers. Suspending them does nothing for any of the 16.3 million Americans whom the Labor Department classified as unemployed last week.
And yet, those payroll taxes seem to matter so much to Trump — or perhaps to his chief of staff, Mark Meadows — that they became an early obstacle to reaching agreement with Congress on renewing essential emergency aid to the American people.
Even Senate Republicans told the White House that cutting the payroll taxes was a non-starter.
Trump — or was it Meadows? — may have been angling all along for a stalemate that they would blame on Democratic leaders in Congress.
It would be in character for Meadows, a product of the Tea Party and a glaring North Carolina gerrymander, who didn’t wait to take his oath as a House freshman in 2013 before trying to organize a government shutdown that he hoped would force repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Once in office, his obstructionism, along with that of other members of the Freedom Caucus he co-founded, drove former Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, to quit Congress and politics altogether. Wherever he might have looked, Trump could hardly have found anyone less suited than Meadows to be his chief of staff in a divided government.
According to The New York Times on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly told Meadows to his face, “You’ve never done a deal.”
The American people sorely need one now. What they don’t need is the eyewash of futile executive orders from a president who resorts to them whenever Congress doesn’t give him what he wants. As a candidate, he regularly assailed then-President Barack Obama for signing executive orders. But Donald Trump is as immune to irony as he is to empathy, modesty and responsibility.
The Wall Street Journal on Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate:
In choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate on Tuesday, Joe Biden checked the essential boxes his party had demanded—a woman, a minority, and a progressive who has moved left as the Democratic Party has. We’ll see how the California Senator plays in the swing-state suburbs that Mr. Biden needs to defeat President Trump.
Mr. Biden’s choice is especially important because he would be the oldest President on Inauguration Day at age 78. The actuarial tables and his declining mental acuity suggest he wouldn’t run for re-election, assuming he lasts a full term. Americans who have watched Mr. Biden on the campaign trail—and the way his advisers protect him from media questioning—are smart enough to know that in voting for Mr. Biden they’re also voting for his running mate as a likely President.
Ms. Harris is most appealing as an example of American upward mobility, especially for immigrants. Her father is a Jamaican-born Stanford economist. Her Indian-born mother was a breast cancer researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.
Even when the country was less racially tolerant than it is now, both parents had successful careers and were able to provide opportunities for their daughter even as they divorced. She made the most of them. Like Barack Obama, Ms. Harris’s success is a living refutation of the left’s critique of America as an oppressive, racist land.
Her political record, on the other hand, will reassure Democrats more than independents or soft Republicans. She’s a political lifer who rose through the patronage machine of former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. She was a local prosecutor, a state Attorney General for six years, and was elected to the Senate in 2016 after party bigs cleared the primary for her. This isn’t an extensive resume for executive office, and on foreign policy she is about as experienced as Sarah Palin.
Ms. Harris ran for President this year but washed out quickly despite being a media favorite as the candidate from central casting. Her campaign’s most notable moment came in the first debate when she played the race card against Mr. Biden by distorting the history of forced busing in the 1970s. The jab scored oohs and aahs from the media judges but its demagoguery was blatant.
Mr. Biden will get credit in some quarters for rising above that attack to choose her. But we’d feel better about Mr. Biden if he had bypassed her for that reason. An effective President needs to put his stamp on the party, not vice versa. In choosing Ms. Harris, Mr. Biden is bending to the party’s preferences and rewarding the kind of political cheap shot he abhors in Mr. Trump.
Her record as prosecutor will bother some on the Black Lives Matter left, but her identity as a minority will blunt that concern. She’s progressive but malleable. She was quick to endorse Medicare for All and the Green New Deal as a presidential candidate, but she backtracked when they began to look too extreme.
She is also a ferocious partisan. As California AG she killed a deal that would have rescued some ailing Catholic hospitals because of opposition from the Service Employees International Union. In the Senate she was one of the nastiest questioners of Brett Kavanaugh, which is a high bar. She floated some innuendo about the judicial nominee’s alleged secret discussions about Robert Mueller’s Russia probe without any evidence. As a candidate, Ms. Harris will be delighted to brawl with Donald Trump.
Mr. Biden may have backed himself into the corner of having to choose Ms. Harris. He limited his choices by promising to select a woman, and the black Democrats who saved him in South Carolina pressed for a black woman. Then the Sanders wing pressed for a progressive, and Ms. Harris is a safer choice by far than Elizabeth Warren.
In this sense the choice is revealing about the unusual nature of Mr. Biden’s candidacy. He won the nomination as the last-ditch, anti-Trump alternative to what would have been the suicidal selection of Bernie Sanders. More than any recent nominee, Mr. Biden is a party figurehead, more than a party leader. In adding Ms. Harris to the ticket, he has underscored that a vote for Mr. Biden isn’t merely a vote to oust Mr. Trump. It’s a vote for the coastal progressives who now dominate the Democratic Party.
The Washington Post on U.S. Attorney General William Barr's comments on Democrats and the Black Lives Matter movement:
Only a few months from a presidential election, at a time when the nation is on edge, a prudent attorney general would take care to stay above the fray, reassuring all Americans that he or she would bring rigorous impartiality to the conduct of the election and the fair counting of votes. Instead, we have William P. Barr.
Over the weekend, the attorney general gave a wide-ranging interview to right-wing provocateur Mark Levin in which he attacked Democrats, Black Lives Matter and the media in tones of emotional, almost bizarre partisanship.
Mr. Barr described Democrats as power-mad agents of a “revolutionary party that believes in tearing down the system.” “They’re not interested in compromise. They’re not interested in dialectic exchange of views. They’re interested in total victory,” he said. In his telling, President Trump’s olive branches have been slapped away, as “they’ve shredded the norms of our system to do what they can to drive him from office or to debilitate his administration.” He explained that “the left wants power because that is essentially their state of grace and their secular religion.”
How do so many Americans fail to see what Mr. Barr sees? The attorney general attacked the “partisan press” for warping the debate. In fact, practically everyone who disagrees with him appears to be slanted in Mr. Barr’s eyes: Courts increasingly ignore the rule of law, he argued, but new “Trump judges” will change that.
And what of his boss? “I’ve never seen such energy. He’s always working. He cares about people,” Mr. Barr assured us.
Accusing one’s opponents of misdeeds of which your side is more guilty is a classic Trump tactic. The president’s recent commutation of his longtime friend Roger Stone’s sentence makes a mockery of Mr. Barr’s self-righteous sermons on the rule of law. The president’s recent suggestion to move the presidential election reflects an obsession with winning at all costs, the Constitution be damned. Mr. Trump was impeached not because the left is in the grips of a power mania but because the president attempted to extort political favors from a foreign leader. But Mr. Barr apparently notices no challenges to constitutional norms from the president.
During the interview, Mr. Barr speculated on why Democratic members of Congress would not, in his telling, condemn the burning down of federal courthouses. “Some of them are essentially revolutionary in their outlook. They believe in tearing down the system,” he explained. “But many of them are just cowards.” These are not the words of someone aspiring to be an attorney general for the nation as a whole.
The New York Times on a nuclear arms agreement:
The nuclear weapons dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago this week wreaked a devastation never before seen in human warfare. Yet they were firecrackers compared with the nuclear weapons that were soon developed — bombs, warheads, shells, torpedoes and other devices capable of vaporizing the human race in an apocalyptic flash.
For decades, that thought cast a pall of acute anxiety over America and the world. Whether because of that fear, a strategy of effective deterrence, chance or all the above, the United States remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons in combat. With the end of the Cold War, anxiety around nuclear war has receded. Most people probably are not aware that a harrowing and expensive new arms race is now underway.
Today Americans are more likely to identify climate change as the greatest man-made threat to the planet. Last year, in the list of what Americans fear compiled annually by Chapman University, “North Korea using nuclear weapons” and “Nuclear weapons attack” ranked 27 and 29, far below “Corrupt government officials” (No. 1) or “Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes” (No. 2).
Yet even with the Cold War long over and stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the Russian and American arsenals sharply reduced through a series of nuclear arms treaties, to fewer than 6,000 warheads each, there are no grounds for complacency. The world can still be destroyed in a flash.
Nine states have nuclear weapons — the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Iran’s nuclear program has been the focus of intense concern for years, and Saudi Arabia has vowed that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will follow suit. Consider also that two men have the power to unleash a nuclear barrage entirely on their own — President Trump and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who are both working assiduously on modernizing their arsenals.
Mr. Trump has said he is working on a new arms control agreement with Russia and is seeking to include China in the talks. But his administration has always found it easier to tear up treaties than to sign them, especially if the result in any way restrains the United States. As the special envoy for arms control, Marshall Billingslea, boasted in May, “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic put millions of Americans out of work, spending so much money on new doomsday weapons was profligate. Now, it seems morally indefensible. This week, the Government Accountability Office said that, without changes, the Pentagon’s nuclear weapons modernization effort is on track to surpass its $1.2 trillion price tag over the next three decades. It seems as though the United States is plunging into a new nuclear arms race with Russia and China without having learned the lessons of the last one.
When briefed by the military in 2017 on the levels to which American and Russian nuclear arsenals had been reduced through arms treaties, Mr. Trump reportedly demanded that the United States increase its nuclear stockpile tenfold. According to some reports, this was what prompted the secretary of state at the time, Rex Tillerson, to call the president a “moron.”
Mr. Trump withdrew the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal, and he has not yet extended the New START accord, the only agreement still in place limiting American and Russian nuclear forces, which was signed by President Barack Obama and expires in early February. In addition, the Trump administration was recently reported to be thinking of breaking the 28-year-old moratorium on nuclear testing.
The 75th anniversary of Hiroshima is a good time to revive serious public concern about nuclear weapons. The pandemic may leave little room for other fears, but public health and economic recovery should not have to compete for resources with a needless and enormously expensive new arms race. As Jessica Mathews, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, it would be good for the five original nuclear powers — the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China — to formally endorse the principle set forth by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at their 1985 summit, that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Above all, the wrenching images of scorched rubble where Hiroshima had stood ought to be cause for serious reflection on what nuclear weapons do — and what they cannot do.