Mar 6, 2023 - Technology

The political realities that make a national TikTok ban tricky

a TikTok logo is displayed on an iPhone

A TikTok logo is displayed on an iPhone. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The U.S., Canada, and a number of European governments in recent months have stepped up efforts to impose restrictions on TikTok, ratcheting up pressure on the Chinese-owned app even as U.S.-China relations have grown increasingly strained.

Driving the news: Last week the House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced legislation that would give President Biden the power to ban the app.

Why do governments want to ban TikTok?

TikTok is owned by the private Chinese company, ByteDance, and much of the scrutiny has revolved around the firm's relationship with the Chinese government.

The big picture: Critics have voiced concern that TikTok could put U.S. customer data at risk because Chinese law requires China's companies to share information with the government, Axios Scott Rosenberg and Sara Fischer write.

A number of recent revelations have challenged TikTok's claims that U.S. user data is secure because it is stored outside of China and that the company does not comply with Chinese government content moderation requirements.

  • FBI Director Chris Wray warned in December that the Chinese government controls the app's recommendation algorithm, allowing it to potentially manipulate content or instigate operations to influence users, and that the Chinese government maintains the ability to collect user data.

Worth noting: TikTok doesn't operate inside China. ByteDance instead offers a similar version of the app, called Douyin, to Chinese customers.

Where is TikTok currently banned?

More than 20 U.S. states have banned state employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices and a number of U.S. universities have barred it from their WiFi networks.

State of play: India banned TikTok in 2020 over privacy and security concerns.

  • In December, Taiwan imposed a public sector ban on the use of Chinese-made software on government devices, which would include TikTok, per AP.
  • The European CommissionEU Council and Parliament all announced last month that they would prohibit staff from having TikTok on their work devices.
  • Canada also banned the app from government-issued mobile devices last month.
  • In Afghanistan, the Taliban ordered a ban on TikTok and the game PUBG last year, claiming it was necessary to keep youth from “being misled."
Who supports a national ban?

The Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries Act (DATA Act), advanced last week by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was introduced by committee chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

What's more: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has also been a proponent of banning TikTok from government-issued devices, and in January he introduced legislation to ban TikTok nationwide.

  • Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told "Fox News Sunday" that he and Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) will introduce legislation this week aimed at creating an approach for banning or prohibiting foreign technology, such as TikTok.
  • Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Angus King (I-Maine) reintroduced legislation last month that would ban TikTok from operating in the U.S.
What legal challenges might preclude a total ban?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee late last month urging members to vote against the DATA Act, saying it would effectively ban TikTok in the U.S.

  • Calling the legislation "vague and overbroad," the letter argued that it would violate Americans' First Amendment rights by infringing on the rights to freedom of expression and association.
  • "Whether we’re discussing the news of the day, live streaming protests, or ​​even watching cat videos, we have a right to use TikTok and other platforms to exchange our thoughts, ideas, and opinions with people around the country and around the world,” Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at ACLU, said in a press release.
What other countries are doing

Even countries that haven't yet taken steps to ban TikTok have taken steps to probe and restrict the app.

  • Several German ministries prohibit the use of TikTok on official phones, Politico reported.
  • French data protection watchdog CNIL fined TikTok 5 million euros in January over data protection violations and the French Senate launched an inquiry into the app this month.
  • Estonia has prohibited defense ministry officials from having TikTok on either their work or personal devices, Politico reported.
  • The U.K., Australia and New Zealand are allowing individual government agencies to choose whether staff can use the app on work devices, according to the Wall Street Journal.

What to watch: TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23, his first-ever appearance before a Congressional committee.

Go deeper: TikTok drama underscores growing U.S.-China divide

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