Kevin: According to a new Smoothwall report, 96% of US teachers believe that technology in the classroom has a positive impact on students' learning and participation. But with the rise of technology and education, we also must think about the potential risks to our children. What are some of the challenges or concerns with incorporating certain technologies into the learning environment? Are there risks with social media platforms that we should take more seriously? And how can we utilize technology to engage our students while protecting their best interests in the long run? This is What I Want to Know, and today I'm joined by Senator Mark Warner to find out.
Kevin: Mark Warner is the Senior Senator for the State of Virginia and Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Prior to taking office, he was Governor of Virginia and Chair at the National Governance Association, leading a national high school reform movement. Senator Warner has been a leader in technology and business and was an early investor in the cellular technology sector. He joins us today to discuss the risk of certain emerging technologies and how we can protect our students online. Senator Warner, welcome to the show.
Mark: Kevin, thank you so much for having me. And thank you as well for all of your service. Public service-wise, this is just another form of public service.
Kevin: I was eager to have you on for a number of reasons. One, we haven't chatted in a while, but we're going to talk about this whole TikTok thing and the threat to national security. But I remind people when they talk to me about what you are doing, taking the lead on this issue about cybersecurity and social media and the like, that you came from the technology world. Now, I know it's been a long time, but you actually were a leader in some of these technology issues years ago, so it's sort of come full circle for you, hasn't it?
Mark: It really has, and I appreciate you mentioning that, Kevin. I failed at a couple of businesses, but my third business was a charm, and I got into cell phones back in 1982. That was when cell phones were really cool and cutting edge. And then I became a venture capitalist and invested in over a hundred technology companies, created an awful lot of jobs, and I am a big advocate for technology. I think technology can do a lot of great things. I think sometimes we became a little bit too much techno-optimists, that we only saw the upside and we didn't sometimes see the downside. And I know we'll get to TikTok in a moment, but a case in point on that is social media.
I became concerned about social media back in, after the 2016 elections, where we saw the Russians manipulate Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. And we'll talk about TikTok, but one of the things I want your audience to know is I have huge concerns about some of the American companies as well: the Facebook, Twitters, YouTubes, Googles. And I do think we ought to have a national privacy law. I think we ought to have a kids’ online safety bill because I think, for a lot of young people, mental health issues are affected by online platforms. I think we ought to get rid of or at least amend what's called Section 230 that gives all these platforms a get-out-of-jail-free card for any of the content. So I've got a bunch of bipartisan legislation that would deal with all social media, but I do think the TikTok issue is that plus a whole set of national security concerns.
Kevin: Well, and I want to move right to that, but I do need to say parenthetically, because you raised it, that we did go through this period where we thought technology was the end all be all. And I know in the education space, even working with my company, where we run online schools, that folks just felt you turn on the computer, put some apps out there, put some learning curriculum things out there, and kids will just automatically learn. That doesn't happen. And I think that technology is not only as good as we use it, but candidly, and this is going to sound a little harsh, it's also as good as we police it and make sure it's not abused. And that led you to what's going on with TikTok.
As a lead in, I had a librarian on from California, Woodland Library. She and her colleagues use TikTok to engage students. They have a teen reading program, and seniors, to get in the library, do little fun videos. And people often say, "Well, what is the Senate doing? Are they trying to limit our ability to be creative?" That wasn't your intention. So I raised that because I want you to talk about why this is such a big issue and how we can balance the so-called good uses with making sure it's not abused.
Mark: Well, thank you for that lead in, Kevin, because the truth is there’s a lot of creative activity on TikTok. There's a lot of cool stuff going on, and there are a whole group of people that literally make their living off of TikTok. There are social influencers. I met with a young lady the other day who was from the disability community. And TikTok — because she was able to communicate with other folks who were disabled, not only did she make money, but it really brought a sense of meaning to her life that she'd not had before. So let me start with the premise that on TikTok, there's a lot of good.
Here's why I'm concerned. TikTok is owned by a company named ByteDance. ByteDance is a Chinese company. The Chinese government, back in 2017, the Communist Party in China changed the law in China and said every company in China, at the end of the day, has to be responsible to the desires of the Communist Party, not to their customers, not even to their shareholders. They have to be responsible to the Communist Party. So, why do I think TikTok is a national security challenge? Well, 150 million Americans use TikTok on a regular basis, with average use about 90 minutes a day. That's a lot of time. And because the Communist Party can demand, through their ByteDance ownership of TikTok, all of the data. Think about those young people. Think about those teachers, their students, how much time those students are on TikTok. They are collecting data. And no matter what TikTok says, "Oh, we protect American data," there have been plenty of press reports and other reports that have shown Chinese engineers can still get access to this.
My fear is that data could end up being lodged in Beijing. And one of the things about TikTok, it almost knows what you like more than you know what you like, so that it shows you in the next video, and that data could end up being used at some point in the future to blackmail somebody. And clearly, that is a concern. The second problem is that the algorithm, the source code, that creates the secret sauce that provides what video you see next, you don't know; that can be used as a propaganda tool. So if the Communist Party government suddenly says, "Well, you know what? President Xi just went and saw President Putin in Russia, and we want to help; Xi wants to help out his buddy Putin; maybe we'll start putting more videos in that give a Russian point of view about Ukraine."
Or President Xi will say, "We want to send more videos to American kids that say that Taiwan is part of China." There are ways, through misinformation and disinformation, and I believe that these require a national security response. Now, my bill wouldn't automatically ban TikTok. What it would say is, it would give the Secretary of Commerce a chance to bring a case. TikTok would still get its day in court. It would require the intelligence community, and I'm the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, to declassify more information to make the case. And we give them, the Secretary of Commerce, tools to say: You could disinvest or you could ban.
And frankly, if there was a way where TikTok got sold to an American company or to a Canadian or a Brazilian company, and as long as that source code moved, my concern would go down dramatically. But we've not seen a willingness from TikTok to make that kind of change. And one other point I just raised, and this is a little bit the hypocrisy of the Chinese government, is that the Chinese government doesn't allow Facebook or Google or Twitter or a whole host of other American apps to be used in China. And on top of that, with the Chinese government, they've got a TikTok version. They call it by a different name. But the videos their kids see, they limit the amount of time you can be on, and the videos that they show are all about: study hard, be a good citizen, be a patriot for China. That's a very different message than what's coming to our kids and, frankly, kids around the rest of the world.
Kevin: Yeah, I haven't read the bill, but I like the idea that there's this feeling of due process associated with this. So in other words, if there is an issue, then you could present the case, but clearly, we know that there's manipulation taking place. We also know that many young people's brains — we've had people on the show talk about this — many young people's brains haven't developed to the point where they even recognize where they're being manipulated. And it is, by design, consciously intoxicating. The more you are on, the more you will get things to want to be on, and there's an addiction aspect to it.
One other thing is this idea of privacy. Access to data: We can't minimize that. My wife and I were talking about this. We have a relative who is in the intelligence world, and he will come by and look at our TV, look at our computers and put tape over the cameras and says to unplug Alexa, all these things that we're used to just: "Well, Alexa, play this or turn this on." And he said they can watch anything you do. There's a bigger question here beyond TikTok, isn't it, in terms of what's going on?
Mark: Absolutely, Kevin. And what we've tried to do with this due process, rules-based approach is to say we shouldn't do this approach on foreign techno. And we're only talking about technology from countries like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela. Those are the only six countries that our government has determined are adversaries to us. And what we've had so far... This isn't the first time we've had one of these foreign technologies. A few years back, it was a Russian software company named Kaspersky. More recently was the Chinese telecom company, Huawei. We're talking about TikTok today. The thing that really scares the Dickens out of me is what happens if the next generation artificial intelligence is actually controlled by China. That could be a huge game changer.
We need a rules-based approach that will be holistic about foreign-based technology and those questions about data protection. It goes back to my initial comment: I think we need a data privacy law in this country. It's crazy. Whether it's TikTok or whether it's Facebook, I think we need a kid's online safety bill that limits some of the exposure for at least kids under 14 or under 16; we can debate about which age. We need that, but that doesn't directly address the issue about national security, because there is something different in kind when the company is ultimately, I believe, controlled by the Communist Party or they can force the company to do what they want.
And one other point I just want to make, and I think it's really important, goes back to the teachers that you were talking to about how it's used creatively or some of the influencers who make their living off of TikTok. I believe the market will produce an alternative, and it doesn't have to be an American company. It can be a, yes, Brazilian company or a French company. I think the market will produce this, because... And people will still be able to find that way to express themselves, do that creativity, because by the time this law gets passed, if it gets passed, it will then take the Commerce Secretary some time to implement, and these things will be argued through. So I do think there will be an alternative. And I would also point out one thing that I think is really relevant. This is not just something that's happening in this country. Canada has banned TikTok off their phones. The British have. The Europeans have. Recently the British and the Dutch said to all their media people; get off TikTok, because chances are you're being spied on. But the Indian government banned it from all their kids three years ago. And just this week, Australia's moving to restrict it, because all of these countries are coming to the same conclusion that this is a national security threat.
Kevin: And that's an important point. And by the way, it's interesting, because the librarian from Woodlands said the same thing that teachers have said to me, that the market will find an alternative. We don't have to be tied to TikTok because there will be an alternative. One thing that's noteworthy particularly, Senator, in these times: This is a bipartisan issue. In fact, in the Wall Street Journal article that talked about the bill that you and Senator Thune co-introduced on this, they said that it actually will put legs or bite behind what President Trump wanted to do, because he wanted to ban TikTok. This bill puts a process in place. I am encouraged, as are I think many Americans, that it looks as though this is something that people can come together around at a time where we're fighting over so many other things.
Mark: Well, Kevin, I hope so. And again, you don't hear me say this often, but in this case, in terms of TikTok, Donald Trump was right, and he did come out with an executive order. Because there was not enough due process, it didn't stand up in court. President Biden then took the executive order and tried to implement it as well. I put this bill forward, and I got 13 Democrats, 13 Republicans. It's hard to get 26 senators to agree that the sun rises in the East. The Biden administration is supportive, but I don't underestimate that it's still going to be a slog. TikTok is spending, reportedly, over a hundred million dollars trying to lobby on this. I had somebody tell me the other night they saw three different TV-
Kevin: I saw TV. Yeah, I see TV ads.
Mark: There are TV ads. There's a bunch of these ads that people in politics or these newsletters that go out each morning, that a lot of politicians read. TikTok has been sponsoring most all of them over the last couple of weeks. So they are going to throw everything they can at this bill. One of the things they said is that individual Americans could actually be penalized. That is not true. We are going after foreign corporations and potentially their CEOs or executive leadership, but no individual Americans would ever be targeted. There is no expansion of government surveillance, and if there are ways through the legislative process, we can even make that more clear. I'm open to amending the bill to make it more clear, but the thing is, we are seeing the power of lobbying dollars being put to use, and I don't underestimate the struggle this is going to be to get this over the finish line.
Kevin: Yeah. So Senator, I have one last question. I really appreciate you joining us, and we have a lot of superintendents, school leaders, teachers, parents that watch the program. And even though your focus has been on national security and your chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, you do because of your background, as we mentioned earlier; you understand technology; you understand its benefits and its challenges. How can we better protect our children online? Many teachers are grappling with this because they want to utilize the technology, but some of the things we've talked about are even becoming more pronounced. So just in your opinion, what are some of the things we should be doing?
Mark: Amen. I think that... My kids are older now, but if my kids were in those vulnerable years, 10 to 16, I would think about limiting their time online. I would think about saying some of these sites may be too dangerous. I think I would be trying to get on people like me and people in government to say, "Hey, we need legislation because parents alone can't police all this, because kids find a way to get on their phones." The British have actually passed an online safety bill for kids. They're going to start to implement it. I'm meeting with them. I think we could learn some lessons there, but we need a combination of both parent involvement, teacher and superintendent involvement And then those of us who are in the legislatures, at the national level: We need to do our job. Frankly, it's kind of embarrassing to me that even for something as basic as privacy laws, we've still not done it.
I'm all for it. There's a bipartisan bill, but these companies, these social media companies have got as much power and as much money as any company you've ever seen. I was a business guy. As I mentioned beforehand, I've got nothing against people being successful in business, but boy, these companies have got a lot of power, and they have fought long and hard. I do think that, not just about TikTok, but about overall, the level of concern that parents have, particularly about the level of mental health, disproportionately with young women, I think is — If the social media companies don't start to change, I hope parents will put pressure on us to legislate change.
Kevin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And Senator Warner, I would ask you and urge you to stay the course.
Mark: Thank you, sir.
Kevin: And thanks so much for joining us on What I Want To Know.
Mark: Kevin, thank you again. Thanks for having me on. I hope you have me back.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want To Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know, using hashtag-W-I-W-T-K on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com.
I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want To Know.
Meet Senator Warner
Mark Warner is the senior Senator for the state of Virginia and Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Before taking office, he was governor of Virginia and chaired the National Governors Association, leading a national high school reform movement.
Senator Warner has also been a leader in technology and business and was an early investor in the cellular technology sector.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.