In recent months, lawmakers in the United States, Europe and Canada have escalated efforts to restrict access to TikTok, the massively popular short-form video app that is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, citing security threats.
The White House told federal agencies on Monday that they had 30 days to delete the app from government devices. Canada and the executive arm of the European Union also recently banned the app from official devices.
A House committee on Wednesday backed an even more extreme step, voting to advance legislation that would allow President Biden to ban TikTok from all devices nationwide.
Here’s why the pressure has been ratcheted up on TikTok, which has said that it is used by more than 100 million Americans.
It all comes down to China.
Lawmakers and regulators in the West have increasingly expressed concern that TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, may put sensitive user data, like location information, into the hands of the Chinese government. They have pointed to laws that allow the Chinese government to secretly demand data from Chinese companies and citizens for intelligence-gathering operations. They are also worried that China could use TikTok’s content recommendations for misinformation.
TikTok has long denied such allegations and has tried to distance itself from ByteDance.
India banned the platform in mid-2020, costing ByteDance one of its biggest markets, as the government cracked down on 59 Chinese-owned apps, claiming that they were secretly transmitting users’ data to servers outside India.
Since November, more than two dozen states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices and many colleges — like the University of Texas at Austin, Auburn University, and Boise State University — have blocked it from campus Wi-Fi networks. The app has already been banned for three years on U.S. government devices used by the Army, the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Coast Guard. But the bans typically don’t extend to personal devices. And students often just switch to cellular data to use the app.
Some members would like to. This week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to approve a bill that could grant a president the authority to ban the platform entirely. (Courts previously stopped a Trump administration effort to do this.)
In January, a Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, introduced a bill to ban TikTok for all Americans after pushing for a measure, which passed in December as part of a spending package, that banned TikTok on all devices issued by the federal government. A separate bipartisan bill, introduced in December, also sought to ban TikTok and target any similar social media companies from countries like Russia and Iran.
It’s been largely quiet, though the White House pointed to an ongoing review just this week, in response to questions about TikTok. TikTok has been in yearslong confidential talks with the administration’s review panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, to address questions about TikTok and ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government and the handling of user data. TikTok has said that it has heard close to nothing since its August submission of a 90-page proposal detailing how it planned to operate in the United States while addressing national security concerns.
Most of the existing TikTok bans have been implemented at governments and universities that have the power to keep an app off their devices or networks.
A broader, government-imposed ban that stops Americans from using an app that allows them to share their views and art could face legal challenges on First Amendment grounds, said Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After all, large numbers of Americans, including elected officials and major news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, now produce videos on TikTok.
“In Democratic governments, the government can’t just ban free speech or expression without very strong and tailored grounds to do so and it’s just not clear that we have that yet,” said Ms. Chin.
The exact mechanism for banning an app on privately owned phones is unclear.
Ms. Chin said that the United States could block TikTok from selling advertisements or making updates to its systems, essentially making it nonfunctional.
Apple and other companies that operate app stores do block downloads of apps that no longer work. They also ban apps that carry inappropriate or illegal content, said Justin Cappos, a professor at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering.
They also have the ability to remove apps installed on a user’s phone. “That usually doesn’t happen,” he said.
Determined users might also be able to fight a ban by refusing to update their phones, “which is a bad idea,” Professor Cappos said.
TikTok has referred to the bans as “political theater” and criticized lawmakers for attempting to censor Americans. “The swiftest and most thorough way to address any national security concerns about TikTok is for CFIUS to adopt the proposed agreement that we worked with them on for nearly two years,” Brooke Oberwetter, a spokeswoman for TikTok, said in a statement. Separately, TikTok has been trying to win allies, recently making an uncharacteristic push in Washington to meet with influential think tanks, public interest groups and lawmakers to promote the plan it submitted to the government.
Chinese ownership seems to be the main issue.
Critics of the efforts to ban the platform have pointed out that all social media networks engage in rampant collection of their users’ data.
Fight for the Future, a nonprofit digital rights group, recently waged a #DontBanTikTok campaign with the goal of redirecting lawmakers’ attention on TikTok to creating data and privacy laws that would apply to all Big Tech companies.
“The general consensus from the privacy community is that TikTok collects a lot of data, but it’s not out of step with the amount of data collected by other apps,” said Robyn Caplan, a senior researcher at Data & Society Research Institute.
The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter this week to the House Foreign Affairs Committee to protest its bill, saying that the legislation would violate Americans’ First Amendment rights.
Of course, millions of Americans, digital creators and marketers would hate to see the platform go away, and blocking a popular app could create a political backlash among young people.
To protect your privacy on TikTok, you can employ the same practices used to protect yourself on other social media platforms. That includes not giving apps permission to access your location or contacts.
You can also watch TikTok videos without opening an account.
The administration could approve TikTok’s plan for operating in the United States. There is also a chance that lawmakers would force ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American company — which almost happened in 2020.