TikTok "boom"! Could the US ban the app?
As a person over 40, the first thing I did when I heard about a new bipartisan US bill that could lead to a ban of TikTok was: call my niece Valeria in Miami.
She’s a high school sophomore who spends a lot of time on TikTok.
“People are hypnotized by it,” she told me, estimating she spends up to two hours a day on the app, even when she deliberately erases it from her phone during school hours. And during the dog days of summer, she says, some of her friends will tap in for more than eight hours daily.
On this particular day, the two top vids in her feed were: a physics teacher driving a homemade rocket-powered scooter through his classroom to the soundtrack of rapper Ace Hood‘s hit record “I woke up in a Bugatti,” and a mesmerizing vid of a woman applying fine lines of wax to a Pysanka egg.
This is the sort of algorithmic catnip that has won TikTok more than 100 million users in the US alone.
But the new bill moving through Congress could end all of that. The RESTRICT Act would expand the president’s power to ban apps or hardware made by companies based in countries that Washington considers “adversaries.” While the bill doesn’t mention any companies by name, Chinese-owned TikTok is widely understood to be its fattest target.
US lawmakers have already banned TikTok on government devices – but the new bill would permit the president to scrap the app from everyone else’s phones too.
Why do people want to ban TikTok? Supporters of a ban say the app, which records loads of personal data about its users, is a national security risk. After all, what’s to stop the Chinese government from demanding TikTok hand over all that data on ordinary Americans’ locations, obsessions, and contacts? (Answer: nothing – it’s a one-party state.)
What’s more, the platform’s vast reach has raised concerns that Beijing – or its friends – could use TikTok for propaganda or influence operations meant to mess with American politics.
My niece, for her part, says that while the political and privacy issues don’t come up much among her friends, she does worry about this problem of disinformation. “TikTok has a false sense of credibility. If you wanted to get a large number of people to believe something that was not true,” she says, “TikTok could be useful for that.”
TikTok says it recognizes the concerns, but points out that it has already negotiated solutions to these issues with the US. Those reportedly include creating a special US-based oversight board for its content and transferring US users’ data to servers run by American companies.
Opponents of a ban have strong arguments too.
For one thing, a big legal fight could await.
“There are important First Amendment concerns,” says Anupam Chander, a scholar of international tech regulation at Georgetown Law School. “TikTok is an enormous speech platform, one that millions of Americans depend on on a daily basis.”
Supporters of a ban disagree, arguing that a ban on the company isn’t a ban on speech itself. But the issue would almost certainly wind up before the courts before long.
At the same time, banning TikTok could provoke a backlash at home. While polls show a majority of Americans support a ban, Democrats are far less keen than Republicans, and younger voters – TikTok’s primary users – are evenly split over the issue.
There’s a global angle too. Banning TikTok or forcing it to house its data in the US could set a precedent that comes back to hurt global American firms, according to Caitlin Chin, a tech regulation expert at CSIS.
“The U.S. economy depends on cross-border data flows,” she says. “If the United States starts banning companies based on their corporate ownership or their country of origin, this could encourage other countries to do the same.”
But perhaps the biggest issue, says Chin, is that banning TikTok wouldn’t really address the specific concerns that TikTok’s critics have raised.
Thousands of American companies already sell data to brokers who can pass it on to hostile governments, she points out. And as we’ve seen, US-based social media platforms are hardly immune to spreading disinformation themselves. For Chin, the problem is more basic.
“The US has very outdated and fragmented regulations when it comes to both data privacy and content moderation. Banning TikTok is not actually going to solve our data privacy or surveillance or propaganda problems.”
As for Valeria and her friends, banning TikTok might not be the worst thing, she says.