TikTok is facing bans across the U.S. over ties to China, but experts say the real issue is privacy

TikTok app logo.
Photo illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The social media app TikTok, a platform with over 1 billion users nationwide, is facing bans across the United States because of the app's strong ties with its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and the Chinese Communist Party. But experts say those who are seeking to prohibit its use are focusing on the wrong problem.

In 2020, the Trump administration attempted to ban the platform and failed. Now, dozens of institutions, state governments and federal lawmakers across the country have taken action to ban it.

Most recently, on Feb 7, in a close vote, the Virginia Senate passed legislation banning TikTok and the Chinese messaging app WeChat on state government devices. Republican state Sen. Ryan McDougle, who presented the legislation, says TikTok is “invasive.”

“TikTok is voraciously collecting data on its users in the United States,” McDougle told Yahoo News. “Effectively, TikTok is an arm of the People’s Republic of China and operated under its direction.”

State Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, pen in hand, listens to debate.
Virginia state Sen. Ryan McDougle at the state Capitol in Richmond in March 2022. (Steve Helber/AP)

On Jan. 24, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced legislation on the federal level to ban Americans from downloading TikTok in the U.S. Last year Hawley’s No TikTok on Government Devices Act, which blocked TikTok from all information technology of federal agencies, was signed into law.

In a recent statement to Yahoo News, Hawley said, “TikTok violates the privacy of every American who uses the platform. To ensure the Chinese government does not exploit the data of American users, the platform should be banned across the United States to protect our children and nation as a whole.”

In response to the controversial federal legislation, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement to the news outlet The Hill, “We hope that [Hawley] will focus his energies on efforts to address those issues holistically, rather than pretending that banning a single service would solve any of the problems he’s concerned about or make Americans any safer.”

With tensions on the rise with China, particularly after a Chinese balloon was shot down on U.S. territory, some Democrats have become more vocal about a nationwide TikTok ban.

“It’s something that should be looked at,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in an interview with ABC News.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer seen against the ceiling of the Cupola of the U.S. Capitol.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., at a news conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Over 20% of Americans use TikTok, with most users ranging from 18 to 29 years old, according to a 2021 study by Pew Research Center.

“TikTok is a part of people's life all over the U.S. Whether they're taking to TikTok to mobilize for social change, or to make a daily wage, there are really high costs here,” Kian Vesteinsson, senior research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House, told Yahoo News.

Vesteinsson says a nationwide ban on TikTok would be a “mistake” and that the real problem is the United States' lack of laws protecting data privacy at the federal level on all applications.

“Instead of a ban, the U.S. government should strengthen privacy protections and bolster transparency requirements for all social media platforms,” he said.

Lia Holland, communications director of the internet advocacy nonprofit Fight for the Future, says TikTok is not the only app that stores information on its users.

“To be clear, every app out there is trying to mimic TikTok right now. Even if we banned TikTok, we would still be left with these manipulative and addictive practices that other apps would take advantage of,” she said.

The U.S does not currently have federal legislation to protect data on social media platforms. “It’s frankly embarrassing,” Holland said. “The U.S. government needs to act to protect all of us, no matter what app we're on now.”

Social media applications are one of the largest sources of data collection, according to experts, and in the U.S., over 65% of adults have social media accounts.

“The data that these apps are collecting on all of us right now could be used in all sorts of nefarious ways now and in the future — whether that's for abuse, stalking or to make employment decisions,” Holland said.

Five young people, seen from below, each looking at their cellphones.(iStockphoto/Getty Images)
Data privacy protection laws in the U.S. are less stringent than than in other countries. (iStockphoto/Getty Images)

According to experts, a nationwide TikTok ban would have a negative impact globally. “A ban undermines the U.S.'s credibility to advocate against censorship at the international level,” Vesteinsson said. “Our research shows that authorities learn from each other, copying restrictive policies and actions from foreign governments to implement in their own countries.”

A ban of that magnitude, he said, could “serve as a justification for governments around the world to block other international social media platforms in their countries.”

But if a nationwide ban is on the horizon, other social media platforms are prepared, said Robyn Caplan, a senior researcher at Data & Society and a visiting assistant professor at Duke University.

“Meta has a TikTok clone called Reels. Alphabet also has a TikTok clone called Shorts that they developed pretty much directly in response to the ban of TikTok in India,” she told Yahoo News.

As the social media platform faces scrutiny in the United States, TikTok's CEO, Shou Zi Chew, said that “tough conversations” will be needed as he focuses on the future of the platform.

“I don’t take this conversation of ‘Let’s just ban TikTok’ very lightly. … I don’t think it’s a trivial question. I don’t think it should be something that’s decided, you know, in 280 characters,” Chew said in an interview Wednesday with the Washington Post.

In March, Chew will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The hearing will focus on “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” the committee said.

“We understand we start from a place of trust deficit, and that trust is not won by one move, one silver bullet, one meeting,” Chew said.