TikTok Ban Explained: Why The Government Probably Can't Ban the App

After years of “will they or won’t they,” app du jour, TikTok, is now caught in the crosshairs of anti-Chinese sentiment from the U. government, targeting its parent company ByteDance. In mid-March, the Biden administration announced they wanted the app either to be sold to an American company or face being banned. The following week, TikTok went before a congressional committee.

Is there a chance your favorite sh*tposters and “get ready with me” accounts could be banned over geopolitics? According to recent polling, although the idea of a ban has support among adults, a plurality of 18-to-34-year-olds oppose a TikTok ban

Many experts say that despite the bluster, there may not be much that could be done to ban the app. To make sense of the confusion and headlines, here’s what you need to know.

Isn’t it already getting banned in some places?

In some places and in some ways, yes, but not tantamount to a full app ban. Trump already tried that by executive order in August 2020, but it was tossed out in court soon after. Regarding the Biden administration’s recent bravado about pushing for the sale of Tiktok, the Chinese government has said they wouldn’t allow a forced sale. There are a lot of other attempts to restrict access.

On the state level, more than half of US states have banned the app on state-owned devices. On April 14, Montana became the first state to pass a bill banning TikTok downloads from app stores. (It would be permitted to use if you downloaded the app prior to the ban.) Public college campuses that rely on state WiFi networks are up to much of the same. As previously reported by Teen Vogue, campuses like the University of Southern Mississippi have blocked TikTok from their WiFi.

Though Congress has already banned the app from federal devices, Republicans are pushing for a total TikTok ban for Congress members, with an April 17 letter describing it as a “de facto spyware app,” according to The Hill. During a much-spoofed five hours of questioning on March 23, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew repeatedly denied that the app has given US user data to the Chinese government or that they had requested it, telling Congress that ByteDance had not “spied on Americans at the direction of the Chinese Communist Party,” which is the primary complaint from suspicious Republicans.

Is TikTok as bad as Congress says?

A recent piece in Slate exploring the overlapping concerns listed by Congress members about the app – child safety, accusations that the algorithm is addictive, data privacy, national security – shows that Congress has taken an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach in making its critiques. The resulting mishmash muddles good-faith criticism (and concerns that apply industrywide with social media platforms) with groundless or confusing reactions.

There is a Sinophobic aspect to some of the anti-TikTok push (pointed out by some politicians like Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-NY). In Politico, Zachary Karabell called the hostility at the recent congressional hearing “a reminder that a hardening stance against China is one of the few areas of genuine bipartisanship.” The targeting feels especially rich while Twitter rolls back hate speech policies as its interface continues to deteriorate, but Congress isn’t going after Elon Musk for his stewardship of the platform.

As explained by Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer recently on CNN, TikTok certainly does have a “surveillance and capitalist business model, which vacuums up as much personal information about users as possible and then uses it to serve content that keeps us clicking, scrolling, and generating ad revenue” — just like most major US social media platforms including Meta’s Instagram and Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter. 

These companies “take the data from your online activity and combine it with the data it collects about you on the app and use it to create profiles in order to target you with ads,” Caitriona Fitzgerald, deputy director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told PBS. As a result, some critics say a ban on TikTok is missing the forest for a particularly dance-oriented tree. With this in mind, politicians on both sides of the aisle are beginning to poke holes in the attacks on TikTok, with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) joining the platform in order to express her criticism along with other less-likely allies like Republican senator Rand Paul. 

“The solution is not to ban an individual company, but to actually protect Americans from the kind of data harvesting that companies can do,” Ocasio-Cortez says in her inaugural TikTok.

What are other countries doing?

Multiple countries – including France, Canada, Australia, and Taiwan – and governmental bodies including the EU have, like the US federal government, banned the use of TikTok on official devices. And the app has been banned in India since January 2021. Generally, these bans hinge on the claim that the app is a national security risk.

However, the US risks looking simply salty that a Chinese rival has become such a major competitor in the social media space. “Some countries will look at the US seeking to expel a major Chinese tech company, one that is now competitive with US giants (and that Facebook wants to sink), and wonder whether it’s the US using national security as a cover to go after a rival of domestic social media giants,” writes Justin Sherman in Slate.

So what would a ban look like?

The app could get banned from the app stores, resulting in there being no way to download updates, but it couldn't be removed from phones where it was already downloaded. Theoretically, if the US followed India’s lead, the government could try and force internet service providers to block the app. 

Legal experts say that any attempt at a ban would immediately be met with challenges in the courts. One expert told Politico that they expect the government would likely lose these cases on First Amendment grounds.

Would a TikTok ban actually change privacy standards?

Even if the government does single out TikTok, Greer points out on CNN, that due to the US’s own loose data collection rules, politicians’ anxieties about American data collection by another country wouldn’t actually be resolved: “The Chinese government could purchase much of the same information from data brokers, which are largely unregulated in the US.” 

Greer argues that if we actually want to make progress on data privacy, Congress would have to change our data privacy laws rather than target specific platforms: “Every day that our elected officials spend wringing their hands and spreading moral panic about what the kids are doing on TikTok is another day we’re left vulnerable and unprotected.”

US companies like Microsoft are pushing back against TikTok bans in order to protect their own tech, particularly through the proposed RESTRICT Act, which would allow the government to ban tech based on the US relationship with the country where it originates. According to Bloomberg, “Tech executives [said] they’re concerned the measure could expose their companies to national security reviews over even a minor piece of hardware or a line of code if the bill were to become law because most of their systems include some Chinese technology.”

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue

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