Is TikTok about to be banned in America?
The popular social media app might be best known for viral dance crazes and other silly videos. But TikTok is owned by a China-based company, raising concerns that it's a tool that could be used in ways that harm U.S. national security. A number of states — including Maryland, South Dakota, Texas, and others — have recently banned or blocked the app from phones and other devices used by their workers.
In November, Brendan Carr, an FCC commissioner, called for the federal government to ban TikTok, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to do just that. More recently, the White House called on the agencies to wipe the app from all federal devices within 30 days. Why do U.S. officials see TikTok as a problem? And what can they actually do? Here's everything you need to know:
What are the concerns about TikTok?
Influence and espionage. Social media apps are regularly scrutinized for their influence over Americans — witness the brouhahas over Facebook's role in the 2016 election and Twitter's role in blocking a story about Hunter Biden during the 2020 presidential campaign. TikTok comes with a twist: It's owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance. "It isn't an arm of the Chinese Communist Party," Vox reports, "but Chinese laws say it can be forced to assist the Chinese government."
That raises concerns that Chinese officials could influence Americans by manipulating the app algorithm. Bloomberg notes that an American teenager was banned from the platform in 2019 for criticizing China's treatment of Muslim Uyghurs, though that ban was later lifted. And like other social media apps, TikTok collects vast amounts of data on its users — a big reason that states are now banning the app from government devices. "All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn't share our values, and that has a mission that's very much at odds with what's in the best interests of the United States," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in December. "That should concern us."
U.S. tensions with China have also become tenser following the instance with the spy balloon, where there were heightened concerns of potential surveillance by the Chinese government, a claim which it denied. "The Biden-Harris Administration has invested heavily in defending our nation's digital infrastructure and curbing foreign adversaries' access to Americans' data," said Chris DeRusha, the federal chief information security officer
What has the U.S. done?
While there are no plans to completely ban TikTok as of right now, the Biden administration has called for federal agencies to have the app deleted from all federal devices within 30 days. The White House as well as some agencies have already banned the app on its devices. The Office of Management and Budget called the move a "critical step forward in addressing the risks presented by the app to sensitive government data."
Congress also passed the "No TikTok on Government Devices Act" in December as part of a government spending package. The act allows the app to be used in some limited circumstances like national security and research. Many states have also already banned the use of TikTok on their respective federal devices.
House Republicans are also expected to push a bill banning the app nationwide. "Anyone with TikTok downloaded on their device has given the CCP a backdoor to all their personal information," said Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), who proposed the bill. "It's a spy balloon into your phone."
What has been the response?
In response to President Biden's push, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, Mao Ning remarked that the U.S. government "has been overstretching the concept of national security and abusing state power to suppress other countries' companies." Brooke Oberwetter, a spokesperson for TikTok called Congress' bill "little more than political theater."
In terms of a full nationwide ban, TikTok doesn't want to lose its American audience, obviously. Officials have acknowledged that China-based workers can access some Americans' info, but says TikTok hasn't actually turned over data to the government. So the company launched "Project Texas," an effort to "isolate sensitive data from its American users so that only staff in the U.S. will have access." That's an expensive undertaking, but TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew seems to think it's worth it. "I'm very confident that … we will come up with a solution that will reasonably address the national security concerns," he said in November. But that effort clearly hasn't allayed the concerns of American officials.
Wait. Didn't the Trump administration do something about TikTok?
In August 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order that essentially banned TikTok and another app, WeChat, from the United States. The ban never went into effect — there were legal challenges — and in June 2021, the Biden administration reversed the order alongside a promise to evaluate the risks of China-based apps to U.S. national security. But some Democrats have reluctantly suggested that Trump may have had the right idea. "As painful as it is for me to say, if Donald Trump was right and we could've taken action then, that'd have been a heck of a lot easier than trying to take action in November of 2022," Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told Vox. "The sooner we bite the bullet, the better."
Doesn't the First Amendment have something to say about a ban?
Yes. "Postings on TikTok are protected by the First Amendment since they are a form of speech," James Andrew Lewis writes for the Center for Strategic & International Studies. "This means they cannot be banned any more than a person who wishes to access Russian propaganda can be banned from reading Pravda or RT." That presents obstacles to any government action to ban the app outright. "The free-speech implications … are clear, not only for the individuals who wish to speak, but for the community they have created," the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a 2020 filing challenging Trump's ban. But if the First Amendment is a hindrance to blocking the app from most American users, state governments are free to keep their employees from using TikTok on government-owned devices.
The ban on federal devices also allows for any apps that cause a potential security threat to be removed as well. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has been vocal about introducing a Senate bill to completely ban the app. He called the app "China's backdoor into Americans' lives," emphasizing that it harms children and teens, who are the largest user demographic.
The Biden administration negotiated with TikTok, but the talks had "run into delays," The Wall Street Journal reports. "The company had previously reached a tentative deal with the U.S. government this summer, but senior U.S. officials, including at the Justice Department, don't believe that proposed agreement is adequate." TikTok has agreed to store U.S. data on a server owned by the company Oracle.
"We hope that when it comes to addressing national security concerns about TikTok beyond government devices, Congress will explore solutions that won't have the effect of censoring the voices of millions of Americans," said Oberwetter.