In February, Texas governor Greg Abbott released an elaborate plan that would, in his words, “ban TikTok in Texas.” In reality, the practices he details only ensure the app can’t be used on state-owned devices. But that grandiose phrasing closely resembles the tone dozens of policy-makers have adopted around TikTok, many of whom are increasingly alarmed about security issues with the Chinese-owned app. At least 25 U.S. states have outlawed TikTok in some capacity, and bans have been introduced in cities and on college campuses.
The idea of a TikTok ban has roots in the Trump administration, but it’s become a bipartisan issue as more politicians ring the alarm about TikTok’s murky relationship with its parent company, ByteDance, and the Chinese government. While it may seem like overblown paranoia about a popular Gen-Z app that middle-age lawmakers just don’t understand, some of their concerns are legitimate. Still, banning TikTok from app stores probably wouldn’t do much to keep American data safe. Here’s everything to know.
Why ban TikTok?
TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese internet company based in Beijing. Therefore, it’s subject to a series of security laws that allow the Chinese Communist Party to compel a company to hand over data. American lawmakers are worried that the Chinese government will pressure ByteDance to share U.S. data gathered on TikTok, which the CCP could potentially use to blackmail American journalists and politicians. There’s concern that the CCP can use TikTok’s algorithm — and whatever data they’ve gathered to model community behavior in the U.S. — to censor videos, disseminate misinformation, or otherwise influence the feeds of American citizens.
The idea of addressing these issues with a ban first came up in 2020, when then-President Trump tried to force ByteDance’s hand by proposing an ultimatum: ByteDance could sell the app to an American company, or it would be removed from U.S. app stores. At one point, the administration worked out a deal to sell TikTok to an American software company, Oracle, but the deal eventually fell through and Trump’s ban was struck down by a federal court. By the time Biden came to office, he rolled back Trump’s plan and began private negotiations with TikTok and its parent company.
While it started mostly as a hot-button topic for conservative politicians, concerns about TikTok’s relationship with mainland China have reached Democrats too. Earlier this month, Colorado senator Michael Bennet wrote a letter urging Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores. It’s not just policy-makers: FCC commissioner Brendan Carr and FBI director Christopher Wray have both expressed major security concerns about TikTok.
Where is TikTok banned?
College campuses, states, and even a few cities have “banned” TikTok in some capacity, though only in relation to their own devices and networks. At least 25 states have banned the app from state-owned devices and networks. Auburn State University, Boise State University, and University of Oklahoma have made it unavailable on campus Wi-Fi networks. Charlotte, Baltimore, and Denver have all prohibited city employees from using the app on government-owned phones. At the end of last year, Biden signed off on a bill prohibiting TikTok usage on devices issued by the federal government. Still, as things stand right now, students and government employees — not to mention everyone else — can continue to use TikTok on their personal devices or networks.
In December, longtime anti-TikTok crusader Marco Rubio introduced a bipartisan bill that would empower Biden to block all U.S. transactions with TikTok and ByteDance. It’s similar to the language Trump used when he tried to ban TikTok in 2020 — though the specific “transactions” aren’t defined, it would probably bar Apple and Google from offering new downloads or updates in their app stores, eventually rendering the app unusable. After Rubio’s bill failed to gain momentum, it was followed by a separate bill in January led by Josh Hawley proposing largely the same policies.
Would a national ban even work?
Aynne Kokas, a media-studies professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in tech relations between the U.S. and China, believes the likelihood of a national TikTok ban passing is “extremely low.” If it somehow did make it past Biden’s desk, it would most likely have to be enforced by Google and Apple, who could make updating and downloading the app much more difficult. (Although, Kokas points out, it’s not guaranteed that both companies would cooperate — Apple has a significant investment in the Chinese market.) She suspects that there will be legal challenges to the college-campus bans.
How serious are the security concerns?
A lot of these issues hinge on what exactly TikTok’s relationship is with its parent company and how much of TikTok’s software ByteDance employees, particularly ones located in China, can access. “If you read any of the publicity material or Senate testimony from TikTok, there’s strategic ambiguity around ByteDance’s precise relationship with TikTok,” says Kokas.
Despite TikTok’s claims, there’s a fair amount of evidence that suggests it’s closely tied to ByteDance. In 2021, former TikTok employees told CNBC that ByteDance was very much involved in TikTok’s day-to-day functioning. In June, Buzzfeed claimed that leaked audio from internal meetings at the company indicated that ByteDance employees in mainland China could access U.S. users’ data as recently as January 2022. Forbes got more leaked documents in October, which suggested a ByteDance team in Beijing was planning to use TikTok to monitor the location of specific American citizens.
In December, ByteDance announced that four employees, two of them located in China, had inappropriately obtained data on U.S. users, including two journalists. According to the company, in trying to trace the source of the Forbes leak, the team ended up gaining access to the private information of two reporters, one from Forbes and one from the Financial Times. ByteDance said that three of the employees were fired, and one resigned.
It seems like TikTok’s algorithm is influenced by the Chinese government’s agenda. The app has been known to censor videos that talked about protests in Hong Kong, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
At the same time, TikTok’s algorithm isn’t any more opaque than Meta’s, Twitter’s, or Amazon’s. It isn’t gathering much more data than what these American platforms mine from their users — and while those platforms can’t be compelled to share that data with government officials, they can largely do whatever they want with it. “In the U.S., it’s quite a free-for-all in terms of what companies can gather and how they can use it,” Kokas said.
Even as lawmakers rush to crack down on TikTok, regulations for domestic tech companies are noticeably lax. In fact, a TikTok ban is pretty ideal for Silicon Valley — it wouldn’t touch its own data-collection practices, and TikTok’s market share would be up for grabs.
What does TikTok have to say about all this?
TikTok has repeatedly denied ever passing American user data along to the Chinese government. Representatives have admitted that the app used to occasionally censor videos. At a September Senate hearing, TikTok’s interim chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas testified that the app doesn’t share data with the Chinese government but wouldn’t commit to cutting off Chinese employees’ access to American data.
The biggest change TikTok has offered to mitigate concerns about data security is moving U.S. user data to a center operated by Oracle, the software company that was supposed to buy TikTok in 2020. In June 2022, shortly before the Buzzfeed report went public, TikTok announced a new “default storage location of U.S. user data,” revealing that “100 percent of U.S. user traffic is being routed to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.” (For what it’s worth, Oracle has its own history of misusing mass amounts of user data, but the main concern seems to be keeping data out of China’s hands.)
The announcement claimed that there would be “backup” data stored at its U.S. and Singapore data centers, but that they’ll eventually “delete U.S. users’ private data from our own data centers and fully pivot to Oracle cloud servers located in the U.S.” In a letter addressed to U.S. senators later that month, the company acknowledged that Chinese employees had access to American user data but claimed the CCP hadn’t asked for any of that data, and that, if it did ask, TikTok wouldn’t provide it.
So what happens next?
TikTok is working with the Biden administration to try and assure lawmakers that they’re keeping American TikTokers insulated from Chinese meddling. For the past two years, the company has been in confidential negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).
In August, TikTok submitted a plan called Project Texas, which, in addition to moving data to U.S.-based servers, proposed measures like procuring a new security team based in the U.S., giving the American government and Oracle oversight of the app’s algorithm, and allowing CFIUS to do regular security audits.
Experts have already poked some holes in the reported details of Project Texas, and it’s not clear if the Biden administration feels the plan addresses all the security issues. According to ByteDance’s lawyers, they haven’t heard much feedback either. Frustrated with the holdup, TikTok seems to be going on the offense, beefing up its lobbying team and sending CEO Shou Zi Chew to outline the Project Texas plan for think tanks and public-interest groups in Washington, D.C. Obviously, a lot of senators and agency leaders are just as impatient with the Biden administration’s movement on the TikTok front — hence the proposed national ban.
However, recent reports suggest that the Biden administration may have reversed course on the negotiations and proposed a similar ultimatum to Trump’s. Earlier in March, the White House considered supporting legislation that would strengthen its ability to crack down on apps that pose a risk to U.S. data security, which would give it the power to ban TikTok in the U.S. The administration has reportedly sent new demands to TikTok, threatening a possible ban unless the app was sold by its Chinese owners. A TikTok spokeswoman told the New York Times that “a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” endorsing the app’s security proposal as the safest course of action.
Chew is expected to testify in front of a House committee on March 23 about a handful of TikTok-related concerns — including the app’s relationship with the CCP.