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Amid ongoing tensions with Beijing, the Trump administration has considered banning a number of Chinese-owned apps over national security concerns, including the popular social media platform TikTok, said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier this month.
Known for its viral short-form videos, TikTok has exploded in popularity in recent months. It was downloaded more than 315 million times globally in the first quarter of 2020 as people around the world increased their time spent online while on coronavirus-related lockdowns.
TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance. The app’s fiercest critics argue it could be used as a tool for espionage by the Chinese government. To counter these claims, TikTok has repeatedly said it operates independently from ByteDance and all its data centers are located outside of China — meaning user data is not subject to strict Chinese laws requiring companies to comply with government orders for information. The company also recently hired an American CEO and is reportedly considering establishing a headquarter in the United Kingdom.
Despite these assurances, a movement to limit the use of TikTok has gained steam. The House of Representatives on Friday approved an amendment to a military spending bill that would bar all federal workers from downloading the app on government-issued phones. Wells Fargo banned its employees from using TikTok on company devices. Amazon emailed its employees issuing a similar order, but the company then said the message was sent accidentally.
The most substantial pushback so far has come from India, which completely banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps last month in the wake of a deadly military skirmish along the countries’ shared border. Australia is also reportedly considering a full TikTok ban.
Why there’s debate
Proponents of a TikTok ban in the U.S. say the app poses far too much risk because of its parent company’s ties to China. Americans who use TikTok risk having their private information fall into “the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo said. TikTok collects a massive amount of data from its users, all of which could be used to undermine national security if it fell into the wrong hands, critics say.
While there’s no evidence that TikTok has filtered data to Beijing, there’s no way to guarantee that it won’t eventually become part of China’s well-established cyberspying programs, some argue. Beyond security risks, some experts fear the app could be used for a propaganda campaign like the one carried out by Russia on Facebook in 2016 or to censor content that runs counter Chinese sensibilities.
Opponents of the idea say that banning TikTok would be an unnecessarily large step motivated by unfounded fears and political posturing. TikTok does collect data from its users, but no more than other popular social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, some say. Even if that information were obtained by the Chinese government, it wouldn’t provide much counterintelligence value, some argue. A ban would also be extremely unpopular among young people and could derail the careers of popular influencers.
Others say it’s reasonable to be worried about TikTok, but a ban is the wrong response. It may be wise for the government or private companies to prohibit employees from using the app on sensitive devices, but a nationwide ban could establish a worrying precedent that undermines online information freedom. Many security experts have called for legislation to establish broad data protections that cover all social media platforms, not just TikTok.
News of a possible ban has set off an arms race of sorts among a number of similar apps to take over TikTok’s place in the market. Competitors like Dubsmash, Byte and Triller have reportedly seen an uptick in users in the past few weeks. Social media heavyweights YouTube and Instagram are also preparing to enter the fray with features that echo Tiktok’s functionality.
Tiktok’s recent challenges have revived speculation that ByteDance may ultimately choose to spin off the app into its own company or sell it outright to foreign investors as a means of tempering security concerns.
TikTok is a security threat
“The app presents very real security concerns that have drawn the scrutiny of U.S. lawmakers and national security staffers. India, in short, is onto something — and the U.S. should take heed.” — Rachel Bovard, Newsweek
TikTok’s data collection is no worse than that of other popular apps
“It appears to collect very standard analytics information. … Most data collection by apps concerns me; I don’t like any of it. However, in context, TikTok appears to be pretty tame compared to other apps.” — Security expert Will Strafach to Wired
TikTok gets all the attention, but Chinese apps in general are a security risk
“Everyone knows what TikTok is because it’s in the news, but I can guarantee there are other apps in the app store that are even more brazenly tied to a Chinese government-affiliated company. This is more of a systemic issue than just TikTok alone.” — Former congressional chief of staff Clark Fonda to Yahoo News
Congress should establish laws that protect privacy on all social media platforms
“To me, the single most important thing the government can do is drive toward a nationwide privacy law and as part of that establish a standard of care for owners of [personal information]. If you meet those standards, then you should gain liability protection.” — Former U.S. government cybersecurity adviser Michael Daniel to NBC News
Restrictions on online freedom should be resisted
“One of the things that troubles me about it is, it’s something that is counter to the spirit of the internet. I think something significant is lost there if the only apps we get are U.S. apps or apps from approved countries. We lose out as consumers on technology that people like. ... But in the long run the U.S. also loses out economically, because we have been the great driver of the internet.” — Internet law expert Mark Lemley to CNN
TikTok could be the next platform used for election interference
“While Russia did not own or control the U.S. platforms it exploited, its trolls were still able to create and leverage fake accounts to spread disinformation and sow chaos. It’s not difficult to imagine what another foreign adversary, China, could do with a massive social media platform under its thumb. With TikTok, that is the situation the U.S. now faces.” — David R. Hanke, The Hill
Banning TikTok would be more about politics than security
“This is the perfect storm of technology meeting geopolitical rivalry. These kinds of things are being used as bargaining tactics in geopolitical trade negotiation.” — Technology expert Douglas Schmidt to Guardian
TikTok will always pose a risk as long as it maintains ties to China
“TikTok’s problem. It can implement every Western security and data protection protocol it can find, but it cannot mask its provenance. And while it might be true that Beijing has never perused the data collected by TikTok for individuals or studied demographic trends, that isn’t to say it won’t.” — Zak Doffman, Forbes
A nationwide ban would set a dangerous precedent that could fuel authoritarianism
“It’s not crazy for the federal government, or defense contractors, to think about barring employees from using it on their work devices; neither would it necessarily be crazy for them to think about doing the same for Facebook or Twitter. But a national ban would be a far more extreme step — one that would embolden governments and leaders around the world with authoritarian leanings to ban online speech platforms for their own self-serving reasons, including to crush dissent.” — Will Oremus, OneZero
Millions of young people would be furious
“If you mess with Generation Z’s favorite app, be ready for a fight.” — Geoffrey A. Fowler, Washington Post
A full ban may not be possible under U.S. law
“The most intense app bans happen at the network level, blocking any communication between the targeted servers and users in the country. … But American law doesn’t have any precedent for blocking software in that way, so it seems unlikely that the White House would be able to follow through on that kind of heavy-handed network censorship.” — Adi Robertson, Verge
TikTok should split from its Chinese parent company
“Going public in America could mean definitively breaking its chains to the Chinese government — and perhaps be the best possible answer to the company’s critics. That would also give TikTok its best shot at becoming a formidable competitor to Facebook. That would be a good thing, removing the shadow cast by the Chinese government and reassuring users like me.” — Kara Swisher, New York Times
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