Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Milwaukee Could Ban TikTok

Security-driven decision could end free advertising medium for public library and other uses by city.

By - Apr 17th, 2023 04:04 pm
Milwaukee Public Library TikTok account with banned image overlaid. Images from TikTok, Motionstock on Pixabay.

Milwaukee Public Library TikTok account with banned image overlaid. Images from TikTok, Motionstock on Pixabay.

The Milwaukee Public Library has drawn national attention and millions of views for its innovative and amusing use of TikTok, but an international technology trade war and espionage concerns could spell its end.

City officials are asking the Milwaukee Common Council to ban the Chinese-owned TikTok social media platform and other foreign technology products from use on city-owned phones and computers. The move would prevent the library from reaching its 95,000 followers, and make it less likely the city department would again end up on “The Today Show” or other national media outlets.

The proposal could also make promoting city events like Bronzeville Week more difficult.

The policy was inspired by federal and state bans said city Chief Information Officer David Henke. It would extend beyond just the video-based social media platform to a handful of foreign hardware products and a Russian anti-virus application.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” asked Alderman Scott Spiker during the April 12 Finance & Personnel Committee. “What’s the nightmare scenario you are seeking to avoid?”

“This is to secure the city’s assets, and that’s my primary concern,” said Henke. “The risk is data collection.” He said his concerns were about tracking and monitoring. “It’s a matter of principle and doing the best practice.”

Spiker asked what data the city should be concerned about, garbage truck routes? Henke acknowledged that many city records were technically subject to public records requests, but that foreign hardware devices, like security cameras, could be used to monitor the networks they’re attached to. Concerns around TikTok, used by more than 100 million Americans, have centered around user data being stored on servers the Chinese government likely could access.

“At the federal level, there are much bigger concerns with the Department of Defense and State Department,” said Henke.

Alderwoman Milele A. Coggs noted that cities like Atlanta have gone through ransomware attacks. Is Henke’s concern based on a similar attack, which could cost the city significant money to get its data back?

“Yes, that’s a partial fear,” said Henke, citing the Republic National Convention. He noted the policy was larger than TikTok. “I do think it’s important to have a prohibited foreign products category.”

The ban would also include the Chinese messaging application WeChat, Russian anti-virus software from Kaspersky Lab and technology hardware from Huawei Technologies, Dashua Technology Company and at least five other companies. The list mirrors that of one included in Governor Tony Evers‘ Jan. 12 executive order for state devices. Henke said the city doesn’t legally have to act, but he supports doing so.

Coggs, citing her desire to promote the Bronzeville Week event, confirmed with Henke there was a loophole to the ban: she could promote the city event on TikTok using her personally-owned cell phone.

Henke said he would maintain concern over using the service on a private device, but the city cannot regulate the usage of privately-owned devices.

What’s The Library Going To Do?

MPL deputy director Jennifer Meyer-Stearns said the library was considering transitioning to other social media platforms or finding a device that wasn’t owned by the library. “We haven’t come up with a final game plan yet,” she told the committee.

“We have had such success, it’s been so great for the city, that we would like some extra time to come up with a transition plan,” said Meyer-Stearns. A delayed implementation date is being included at the library’s request.

The ban, if adopted, would go into effect on May 31.

But the policy’s actual adoption isn’t a sure thing.

The committee forwarded the policy to the full council with no recommendation. The full council is expected to review the proposal Tuesday.

The five-member committee took no formal roll call, but it was clear there weren’t votes to pass the measure. Coggs said she would abstain pending more information, Ald. Mark Chambers, Jr. said he would abstain because he arrived late, Ald. Michael Murphy was excused, Spiker said he was conflicted and committee chair Marina Dimitrijevic said she was prepared to vote against it.

Dimitirjeivc, who indicated she could change her mind in the future, said she is concerned the TikTok ban could block access to an organizing tool used for First Amendment protests.

“There is massive data harvesting going on by many companies, some that are based in the United States of America… perhaps we need a more comprehensive discussion that looks at everything,” she said.

After nearly a half hour of debate, Dimitrijevic also attempted to ward off criticism likely to follow from the city’s discussion of such a proposal. “We have much larger major issues facing us right now in the City of Milwaukee and in the nation,” said the alderwoman. The remainder of the meeting focused on topics less likely to generate headlines: staffing issues, financial management reports and audit results.

Facebook and Twitter Access

Coggs said this isn’t the city’s first struggle with social media. When she was first elected in 2008, she noted that she and fellow newcomer Nik Kovac had to work to get Facebook and Twitter unbanned.

She said the city’s information management committee’s vision didn’t match the reality of how the council’s then-newest members wanted to use the platform to communicate with and inform constituents.

“It was obvious that the fear they had wasn’t relevant to the ways the applications were utilized,” said Coggs. She said she now has concerns about similar issues with TikTok.

“At this point, I just want to know more about TikTok in particular,” said Coggs. She said she understood the hardware bans, but wanted to feel “justified” in voting to ban TikTok.

Spiker said social media has clear value for reaching residents. “Everyone says just throw it on the website or [the city] channel 25, but no one realizes no one looks at channel 25 or the website,” said Spiker.

MPL on The Today Show (and TikTok)

Should MPL’s TikTok account go dark, you’ll still be able to find them on their Instagram account. Like many social media accounts, similar short-form video content can be found on both platforms. But what is posted is heavily influenced by the common TikTok style: comedic videos, often with on-screen text and music.

One thought on “City Hall: Milwaukee Could Ban TikTok”

  1. says:

    Oh pulleeeease! This kerfufle about TikTok is ridiculous. It’s also probably based on racist hysteria. All of the “big tech” vipers and their platforms are a danger to…..well, everyone who values privacy and free will. Can the Council use their time to find solutions to real problems, like our decaying infrastructure. All Council members should try riding a bike a city streets! Cracks, pot-holes as big as your head, debris everywhere. TikTok, schmikToc!

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