Reports that the Biden administration is threatening to ban TikTok, the most downloaded and one of the most heavily used apps in the country, caused users to erupt in suspicion and indignation Thursday.
Some called it a violation of the First Amendment. Others claimed it was a ploy to help Instagram Reels, the short-video service from Facebook owner Meta. Some wondered why TikTok was being singled out as a threat, considering how many apps hoover up their users’ personal data.
And some simply appealed to policymakers for compassion. “Please don’t ban TikTok. My teenaged son and I have a blast there,” a Twitter user named Aimee Vance tweeted, then added, “Together…”
Here’s a quick rundown of what’s happening and why, along with some of the pros and cons of the administration’s stance.
What does the administration want?
President Biden is trying to do the same thing President Trump sought to do: Take TikTok out of the hands of a Chinese company subject to Chinese law. The app was created by ByteDance, an internet-focused company founded in China in 2012. Although ByteDance has attracted some global investors, it is still controlled by its Chinese founders.
The Trump administration went so far as to ban TikTok in the United States in 2020. That order was blocked by two federal courts, however, which held that the administration had overstepped its authority.
More recently, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a group of federal agencies that examines the national security issues raised by such investments, has given ByteDance an ultimatum, according to the Wall Street Journal and several other outlets: Sell TikTok or face a ban in the United States. A TikTok spokesperson has said a sale wouldn’t address national security concerns because it wouldn’t put any new restrictions around access to the app’s data.
TikTok’s chief executive is scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing next week. The company has proposed storing U.S. users’ data in this country, with technical and corporate protections designed to prevent the Chinese government from gaining access. But U.S. officials apparently are not convinced that this approach would effectively address their concerns.
Congress, meanwhile, is considering a nationwide prohibition on apps subject to Chinese government control. And the federal government, like many national and local governments around the world, has banned TikTok on devices issued to its employees. Orange County joined their ranks Tuesday.
Could the government really ban TikTok?
Telecom industry experts say that it’s technically possible, but there are issues.
The key players here are the two companies that make the dominant operating systems and app stores for mobile phones, Apple and Google. They could help the government enforce compliance by removing TikTok from their app stores, which would force anyone who wanted to install or update the software on their phones to “sideload” it from some other source.
That’s not hard on an Android phone, but on an Apple iPhone, it’s trickier — at least for now. Under pressure from the U.S. and European governments, Apple reportedly will allow sideloading in the new operating system it is expected to release this year.
Apple and Google could go further, though, using their control over the software on their devices to make their phones incompatible with TikTok. At the very least, they could force current TikTok users to stick with the current version of the software, whose performance would probably degrade over time.
There’s a trade-off to this approach, however, said Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Without regular privacy and security updates, the app would become “a great target for people looking to exploit out-of-date software,” she said, adding, “It creates this other kind of vulnerability that would be affecting millions of people, including a lot of young people.”
If the government formally outlawed TikTok, network operators could conceivably block traffic between the company’s servers and U.S. users. But the app’s enormous user base may rush to find ways to circumvent any barriers, such as using virtual private networks to connect to TikTok through other countries, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America. “Savvy Chinese can do it, so [it] should be so much easier here,” Calabrese said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this became a thing.”
Why is TikTok a target?
The Biden administration and members of Congress from both parties have been raising concerns about TikTok for months. Although some lawmakers have complained about the network’s content and its effect on young people, the main issue is the network’s owners.
Sara Collins, senior policy counsel for the advocacy group Public Knowledge, said the potential for exploitation by China’s authoritarian government is what makes the app’s privacy threats unique. “If TikTok were magically owned by a U.S. company, we would be talking about it in the same breath as Google or Facebook,” she said.
TikTok collects a lot of data about its users, including their location and contacts, Collins said. Other companies do too, largely because federal law doesn’t protect that information. In fact, Collins said, “there is an entire industry of data brokers selling this data.”
“It’s hard to pick apart a TikTok problem when the U.S. has a privacy problem,” she said.
Still, one fear is that the Chinese Communist Party or Chinese government officials will demand access to the data for purposes much less benign than personalizing your video feed. Under Chinese law, ByteDance has to turn over personal information relevant to national security whenever the government demands it.
It’s not clear what sensitive data, if any, the government in Beijing has collected from TikTok. Part of the challenge in evaluating the Biden administration’s stance, Llansó said, is that the intelligence community hasn’t shared the information underlying its concerns about TikTok — and it probably never will.
In December, however, the public got a peek at TikTok’s potential for mischief when the company admitted that some of its employees had used the app to track the location of journalists. TikTok said the employees were tracing news leaks within the company, but to some critics, the episode illustrated what the Chinese government could do through the platform.
Not only could China’s government tap into the data TikTok already collects, critics say, it could force the app to collect additional information purely for the government’s purposes. And beyond the surveillance threat, they say, China could manipulate TikTok’s video feeds or the app itself to advance its propaganda.
At a congressional hearing last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said TikTok raised a number of national security concerns. “They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so chose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices,” Wray said, according to National Public Radio.
Yet there again, neither China nor TikTok are unique, Llansó said. Anyone using social media networks should assume that multiple governments are trying to influence them, she said — not just authoritarian regimes, but Western democracies too.