TikTok: Is a Ban Imminent?

Photo Credit: Olivier Douliery

By Isabelle R. Stad
Staff Writer

Last month, TikTok CEO Shou Chew was barraged with questions from American lawmakers in a 5-hour-long Congressional hearing, amid a bipartisan call to ban the popular entertainment app entirely. In the U.S., it has always been widely condemned that China censors apps such as Youtube and Facebook. However, it seems that America is well on its way to doing the exact same thing, under the guise of privacy and content concerns. 

TikTok is a gigantic entertainment tech company, owned by a Chinese parent company named ByteDance. The app has over 150 million American users, accounting for nearly half the U.S. population. It is especially popular for its incredibly powerful algorithm. The so-called ‘For You’ page serves users an endless stream of short videos. The algorithm is excellent at detecting what you like and showing you more of that. 

Because of privacy concerns, former President Trump attempted to take on the immensely popular app in 2020, saying TikTok should either be sold to an American company or banned completely. However, at that time there was no conclusive evidence of Chinese interference on the app and Trump’s effort failed. This shifted in June of 2022 when Buzzfeed News published 80 leaked audio recordings which revealed that American user data had been repeatedly accessed from China. In response, President Joe Biden signed a national bill prohibiting the federal government’s nearly 4 million employees from using TikTok. Moreover, numerous corporations and universities, including UT Austin and Auburn University, have banned TikTok from their campus networks. So, why does the short-video entertainment app continue to be such a concern for the United States? 

Just like American tech companies such as Facebook and Google, TikTok collects user data. These corporations know what their users watch, what their interests are, where they travel, and who their closest friends are. Chinese law permits Xi Jinping’s government to obtain user data of privately-owned China-based companies for national security purposes. Since TikTok is owned by a Chinese parent company, it is thus subject to this Chinese law. 

Moreover, concerns over Americans’ privacy have been amplified over recent months, in part because of the Chinese Spy Balloon that was witnessed hovering over the state of Montana, collecting data. China and other nations worldwide are racing to gather data, as it has replaced oil as the world’s most valuable resource. With access to American data, the Chinese government could track down information about U.S. objectives and strategy, which would give them insight into how to exploit American weaknesses on the eve of a potential cold war.

Besides concerns over privacy, the U.S. is also worried that TikTok’s algorithm censors and promotes certain content. In both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, America was impacted by extensive Russian disinformation campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, among other platforms. With TikTok in its arsenal, it is feared that China could do the same in the 2024 elections. And parent company ByteDance has already practiced pushing pro-China messaging with its now-defunct U.S. news app, TopBuzz. 15 former employees claim the company promoted pro-China content and censored negative stories about the Chinese government. During the trial period last month, the hearing was widely mocked on TikTok and Twitter. Videos of tech-illiterate lawmakers flooded ‘For You’ pages. These were not posted by ordinary TikTok users, but by Chinese officials and media organizations. They posted statements on Twitter such as “It’s simply obvious that Washington’s endeavor to ban TikTok is a xenophobic witch hunt,” showing just how involved China is in the platform.

At the beginning of March, the so-called RESTRICT Act was introduced by Senators Mark Warner and John Thune. The bill would give the Secretary of Commerce the power to take measures against technology companies that are based in certain countries, including China. This is not a direct TikTok ban, however, it could certainly pave the way toward one. Concerns have been voiced over the potential implementation of the RESTRICT Act, with criticisms comparing it to the Patriot Act, which granted the U.S. government unprecedented surveillance powers in the aftermath of 9/11. It allowed law enforcement agencies to monitor electronic communications without a warrant and collect personal information on individuals without their knowledge. The RESTRICT Act, as it is currently proposed, would give the government comparable wide-ranging power to ban any sort of foreign technology, not just TikTok. Even if the Biden administration would use the Act with great caution, this doesn’t mean that future administrations will. 

The democratic West generally condemns “the Great Firewall of China”: Beijing’s intense censoring of social media content and platforms. This always seemed like a practice that was unthinkable in a free America. And although it’s unlikely that the U.S. will ever censor content on the scale China does, the RESTRICT Act does give room to the U.S. government to ban any technology. If the RESTRICT Act is used beyond TikTok, this could lead to a future in which the United States and China have little to no technological overlap. This would effectively mean that both superpowers would be operating, communicating, and innovating in parallel, virtual universes. It is possible to envision a cold war scenario in which countries, divided along China’s and America’s ideological lines, do not just have isolated economies, but also exist in different online realms. 

What exactly the future holds for the Chinese app remains unclear. A full-on TikTok ban, without violating the first amendment, might be unlikely. Yet, even if the ban never happens, the threat of one reflects the United States’ aggressive stance toward China. Whereas once, censoring platforms seemed unthinkable, it is now widely supported by the government. And if a ban were to actually take place, this could lead to an escalation in which China and America both completely ban each other’s technology. What such a world would look like remains to be seen, however, the tensions around TikTok certainly provide a fascinating glimpse.

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