TikTok “boom”! Can the US ban the app?
As someone over 40, the first thing I did when I heard about a new bipartisan bill in the US that could ban TikTok was call my niece Valeria in Miami.
A high school sophomore who a many time on TikTok.
“It hypnotizes people,” he told me, and he estimates he spends two hours a day on the app, even though he deliberately deletes it from his phone during school hours. And on the dog days of summer, he says, some of his friends spend more than eight hours a day.
On this particular day, the two most popular videos on his feed were: a physics teacher driving a homemade rocket-powered scooter around his classroom to the soundtrack of rapper Ace Hood’s hit “I wake up in a Bugatti” and an adorable video of a woman smears fine lines of wax on a Pysanka egg.
This is the kind of algorithmic catnip that has won TikTok over 100 million users in the US alone.
But a new bill making its way through Congress could put an end to all that. The RESTRICTION Act would expand the president’s power to ban apps or hardware made by companies operating in countries deemed “adversary” by Washington. While the bill does not name any companies, it is widely believed that Chinese-owned TikTok is the most likely target.
US lawmakers have already banned TikTok from government devices — but the new bill would allow the president to wipe the app from everyone else’s phone, too.
Why do people want to ban TikTok? According to the supporters of the ban, the application, which records a lot of personal data about its users, poses a national security risk. After all, what’s to stop the Chinese government from demanding from TikTok all the data on the locations, obsessions, and relationships of average Americans? (Answer: nothing – this is a one-party state.)
What’s more, there has been widespread concern on the platform that Beijing – or its friends – could use TikTok for propaganda or influence operations aimed at messing with US politics.
For her part, my niece says that although political and personal issues don’t come up much among her friends, she worries about the problem of misinformation. “TikTok has a false sense of authenticity. If you want to get a lot of people to believe something that isn’t true, he says, TikTok can be useful for that.
TikTok says it recognizes the concerns, but points out that it has already discussed proposals to address these issues with the United States. These reportedly include creating a special US-based monitoring board for its content and transferring US users’ data to servers operated by US companies.
Opponents of the ban also have strong arguments.
On the one hand, a big legal battle can be expected.
“There are important First Amendment concerns,” says Anupam Chander, a scholar of international technical regulation at Georgetown Law School. “TikTok is a massive speech platform that millions of Americans depend on every day.”
Proponents of the ban disagree, arguing that the company ban is not a ban on speech itself. But the case will almost certainly go to court soon.
At the same time, banning TikTok could have reverberations at home. While polls show a majority of Americans support the ban, Democrats are far less enthusiastic than Republicans, and young voters — TikTok’s primary users — are evenly split on the issue.
There is also a global perspective. Caitlin Chin, a tech regulation expert at CSIS, said banning TikTok or forcing it to store its data in the U.S. could set a precedent that backfires on global U.S. companies.
“The US economy depends on the flow of data across borders,” he says. “If the United States starts banning companies based on corporate ownership or country of origin, that could encourage other countries to do the same.”
But the biggest problem, according to 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, he points out. And as we’ve seen, US social media platforms themselves are hardly immune to the spread of disinformation. For Chin, the problem is more fundamental.
“The US has very outdated and fragmented regulations for both privacy and content moderation. Banning TikTok will not actually solve our privacy, surveillance or propaganda problems.”
As for Valeria and her friends, getting banned from TikTok might not be the worst thing, she says.
“I wouldn’t mind being restricted – it’s fun, but it still takes up an enormous amount of time that could be spent elsewhere.“