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Who pays the price for a TikTok ban?

Who pays the price for a TikTok ban?
Jess Frampton

It’s a tough time to be an influencer in America.

TikTok’s future in the United States may be up against the clock after the House voted in favor of banning the popular social media app if its Chinese owner, ByteDance, doesn’t sell. President Joe Biden said he’d sign the bill if it reaches his desk, but it’s unclear whether the Senate will pass the legislation.

Biden and a good chunk of Congress are worried ByteDance is essentially an arm of the Chinese Communist Party. Do they have a point, or are they just fearmongering in an election year amid newly stabilized but precarious relations between Washington and Beijing?

All eyes on China

In 2017, China passed a national security law that allows Beijing to compel Chinese companies to share their data under certain circumstances. That law and others have US officials worried that China could collect information from TikTok on roughly 150 million US users. Pro-ban advocates also lament that the CCP has a seat on the ByteDance board, meaning the party has direct influence over the company.

Another worry: TikTok could push Chinese propaganda on Americans, shaping domestic politics and electoral outcomes at a time when US democracy is fragile. TikTok denies the accusations, and there’s no public evidence that China has used TikTok to spy on Americans.

Still, there is growing bipartisan support for taking on TikTok and its connections to China, says Xiaomeng Lu, director of geo-technology at Eurasia Group. And the public may not be privy to all of the motivations for banning the app. “We don’t know what the US intelligence community knows,” she says.

Incidentally, none of these security worries have stopped members of Congress who voted for the potential ban from using TikTok, while a few who voted against it – including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman, Ilhan Omar, and Cori Bush – are users themselves.

In theory, the TikTok bill could apply to other apps – anything designated as being too close to foreign adversaries and a threat to the US or its interests. But TikTok and China are the main focus right now, and not just for the US ...

View up north

Canada banned TikTok from government phones in 2023, the same year Ottawa launched a security review of the wildly popular app without letting Canadians, 3.2 million of whom are users, know it was doing so.

Ottawa isn’t rushing to get ahead of Washington on this, so it could be a while before we see the results of the review. There’s no indication of any TikTok bill in the works, but there may be no need for one. The security review could lead to “enhanced scrutiny” of TikTok under the Investment Canada Act by way of a provision concerning digital media.

Canada would also have a hard time breaking from the US if it decides to deep-six TikTok given the extent to which the two countries are intertwined when it comes to national security.

Consequences of tanking TikTok

If there is a ban, critics are already warning of dire consequences. The economic impact could be substantial, especially for those who make a living on the app. That includes 7 million small and medium businesses in the US that contribute tens of billions of dollars to the country’s GDP, according to a report by Oxford Economics and TikTok. In Canada, TikTok has an ad reach of 36% among all adults. If app stores are forced to remove TikTok, it will be a blow to the influencer-advertising industrial complex that drives an increasingly large segment of the two economies.

There are also fears a ban will infringe on free speech rights, including the capacity for journalists to do their job and reach eyeballs. In 2022, 67% of US teens aged 13 to 17 used TikTok. In Canada, 14% of Canadians who used the internet were on TikTok, including 53% of connected 18-24-year-olds – which is the vast majority of them.

Meanwhile, there’s consternation that a ban would undermine US criticisms of foreign states, particularly authoritarian ones, for their censorship regimes. Some say an American ban would embolden authoritarians who would be keen to use the ban as justification for invoking or extending their crackdowns.

Big Tech could grow

A forced TikTok sale could also invite its own set of problems. Only so many entities are capable of purchasing a tech behemoth – Meta, Apple, and Alphabet. But if they hoovered up a competitor, there would be concerns about further entrenching the companies and inviting even more anti-competitive behavior among oligopolists. Also lost in the TikTok handwringing: Domestic tech companies pose their own surveillance and mis- or disinformation challenges to democracy and cohesion.

There are a lot of “ifs” between the bill passed by the House and a TikTok ban. The Senate isn’t in a rush to vote on it – doing so could take months – and if it does pass, it will almost certainly face a long series of court battles. If all of that happens and the law survives, ByteDance could in theory sell TikTok, but Beijing has said it would oppose a forced sale.

Meanwhile, there’s next to no chance Ottawa will try to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok or ban it if the US doesn’t move first. Doing so would just invite TikTok to bounce from Canada and its comparatively small market.

What about … elections?

The political consequences of a ban wouldn’t necessarily extend to the 2024 election. If young people are bumped from the money-making app, will they vote with their feet?

Graeme Thompson, a senior global macro-geopolitics analyst at Eurasia Group, is not convinced the move will affect votes. “To the extent that it affects the elections,” he says, “it may be more about communications and how political parties and candidates get their messages out on social media.”

But with young voters already souring on Biden over issues like Gaza, some congressional Democrats warn that moving forward with a ban could seriously hurt the president at the ballot box. Besides, even as the White House raises security concerns about TikTok, the Biden campaign is still using the app to reach voters.


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