Since its reinvention in 2017, TikTok has taken the world by storm. The short-form video app — which uses an algorithm that suggests videos to people in an endless feed you can scroll through — is peppered with every kind of content under the sun. Whether you’re interested in anime, looking for the wildest mashups you’ve ever heard, or just there for sheer entertainment, the expansiveness of the app has allowed it to become the defining social media platform of an entire generation. A Pew Research Center survey reports that 67% of U.S. teens say they use the app, out of over 150 million American users.
However, as TikTok has grown, it’s faced increased scrutiny from users, journalists, and the U.S. government. The app has been criticized for spreading misinformation on a variety of topics, like climate change, COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, and even the neurodevelopmental disorder ADHD. TikTok has also faced lawsuits from parents who’ve claimed the app encouraged eating disorders in their children.
More recently, Tiktok is facing a larger challenge as state and federal institutions seek to ban the app due to perceived national security risks. (This is not a first for the app; in 2020, former President Trump proposed a TikTok ban.) In mid-March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden Administration demanded TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes or face a possible ban in the United States. On Thursday morning, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in Congress amid growing uncertainty around the app.
All the information about the potential ban can be a lot to parse, so from one TikTok scroller to another, here is everything you need to know about the proposed TikTok ban and its possible impacts on everyday users.
Why do people want to ban TikTok?
Basically, certain lawmakers want to ban TikTok because they say it poses a national security risk, with regard to the Chinese government and, more specifically, the fear that this government could or does interfere with TikTok’s operations. TikTok is owned by the China-based company ByteDance, and American legislators have expressed concerns that TikTok could exploit user data to spy on its American users and feed them misinformation. That being said, there’s a number of people who all have varying opinions on these alleged dangers and possibilities, so it’s important not to generalize these arguments too much. In this case, it’s helpful to look directly at the logic of the lawmakers who were early proponents of the ban.
While the support for a ban extends beyond this list, there are three key politicians who are pushing for a TikTok ban: Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, and Democrat Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. Their reasoning includes a lot of references to protecting democracy, fighting communism, and a general fear of the relationship between the company that owns TikTok and the Chinese government.
“This isn’t about creative videos — this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day. We know it’s used to manipulate feeds and influence elections. We know it answers to the People’s Republic of China,” Sen. Rubio said is his statement on the proposed legislation to ban TikTok.
Do I need to be worried about how TikTok uses my data?
The answer to this question is actually quite complicated, because there is a lot we don’t know about ByteDance’s relationship with China and its government. According to an explainer from the Associated Press, the seriousness of the threat depends on who you ask and how concerned you are about technology companies using personal data.
The FBI and the Federal Communications Commission have both warned that TikTok could share users’ information with the Chinese government. (TikTok has already been banned from use on federal devices; in other words, if you’re a U.S. government staffer, you can’t have the app installed on your work phone.) Proponents of the ban point to a 2017 Chinese law that would require companies like ByteDance to provide information to the government when it pertains to national security concerns, but according to the AP, there’s no evidence that TikTok has ever turned over data. One major incident of allegedly documented misuse was in December, when ByteDance said that some of its employees had illicitly obtained data from two U.S. TikTok users who were journalists. As a result, the company is now being investigated by the Justice Department.
Again, there is still a lot we don’t know about TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and its relationship with the Chinese government, but U.S. legislators’ arguments in favor of this ban also arguably tap into a long-running fear of China and communism in general, in ways that are reminiscent of Cold War-era anti-communist attitudes. In his statement on the bill, Rep. Gallagher likened allowing TikTok to exist in the U.S. to “allowing the U.S.S.R. to buy up the New York Times, Washington Post, and major broadcast networks during the Cold War.”
Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) asks TikTok CEO Shou Chew: "Does TikTok access the home WiFi network?" https://t.co/Fmv8MED8z0 pic.twitter.com/xwrYuSn3jE— Bloomberg (@business) March 23, 2023
TikTok would not be the first tech company that has been accused of mishandling user data. Other platforms, like the Meta-owned Facebook, have run into documented instances of misused data and exploitative practices with regard to their algorithms. For example, the Cambridge Analytica scandal provided information of roughly 50 million Facebook users to the voter profile firm, thus potentially impacting the results of the U.S. election. In another instance, Facebook’s algorithm was shown to worsen the persecution of the Rohingya people in 2017, according to Amnesty International.
There is no documented evidence that TikTok has contributed to issues like in either of these incidents. However, what makes TikTok unique is that it’s owned by a Chinese parent company, ByteDance, which has flagged concerns with American politicians. TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, has defended the company and its practices and said that divesting the company from Chinese owners doesn’t offer more protection than a multibillion-dollar plan TikTok has already proposed to protect American users’ data.
As a good rule of thumb, users should be skeptical about how their data is used by major tech companies — regardless of the platform. We don’t always know how U.S.-based companies like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter use data either, so if you want some good starter tips to protect your data, our friends at The Verge have put a great guide together.
Will TikTok get banned in the U.S.?
We don’t know if lawmakers or President Biden will actually ban TikTok at the national level and make it unavailable to all U.S. citizens. At time of publication, TikTok has already been banned in limited forms throughout the United States. The app was banned on federal government-owned work devices, and more than two dozen states have enacted similar bans as well. In addition to this, some colleges and universities have blocked access to TikTok on campus Wi-Fi.
Our CEO, Shou Chew, shares a special message on behalf of the entire TikTok team to thank our community of 150 million Americans ahead of his congressional hearing later this week.♬ original sound - TikTok
We will update this article as more concrete information comes out about the U.S. government’s potential ban of TikTok.
When is TikTok getting banned?
We don’t yet know when or if TikTok will be banned, or whether it will get restricted in some form. A report from the Wall Street Journal prompted concerns of a more imminent ban, since the Biden administration demanded that Chinese owners sell their stake or face a ban.
However, in practice, a TikTok ban would require a complicated unwinding of political and technological steps that could make it more difficult to suddenly enact overnight nationwide. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat on the new House committee focused on U.S. competition with China and a lawmaker who supports bipartisan legislation to ban TikTok from operating in the U.S., said on Face the Nation that he does not think the app will get banned this year. He gave that interview in 2023, so that gives us an idea of how fast legislation could move from the perspective of an insider, but the story is constantly developing. We will update this article as we learn more information.
How would a TikTok ban work?
According to a report from NBC News that compiled advice from four cybersecurity experts, there are a few ways a ban could pan out. The first would entail removing it from app marketplaces. In this way of enacting the ban, the app would still remain on phones where it had already been installed, but it would become unstable and eventually unusable as the company would be unable to publish updates. The other way the U.S. could enforce a ban would be to criminalize the use of TikTok, but a cybersecurity expert in the report said that no such measures had ever previously been taken with a platform as mainstream as TikTok.