U.S. lawmakers and politicians have been increasingly waging war on TikTok, the hugely popular social media app owned by Chinese company Bytedance.
TikTok’s critics have accused the app of being a direct channel to the Chinese government and, thus, a privacy and cybersecurity risk. In particular, they have raised concerns that TikTok collects massive amounts of data from U.S. citizens. It may be shared with the Chinese government and could be used to interfere with U.S. elections by spreading misinformation.
The app is already banned from all devices issued by the U.S. military. This past Wednesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a bill banning the app from all devices issued by federal agencies. The bill contains exceptions for law enforcement, national security, and security research.
Earlier this past week, the governors of Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Utah ordered their agencies to prohibit the app on all state-issued devices. These states join Texas, Maryland, South Carolina, and Nebraska, which already have similar bans. These bans also include, for example, blocking the use of the app on campus and dorm WiFi at state universities.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R. Fla.) is leading a bipartisan effort to pass a law banning TikTok altogether in the U.S. The proposed legislation would ban social media companies belonging to “countries of concern,” i.e., China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela.
In a statement on its website, TikTok states that it stores U.S. user data in the United States and that none of its data is subject to Chinese law. It says further that it has never been asked to remove content by the Chinese government and would not do so if asked. However, in July 2022, TikTok confirmed in a letter to U.S. Senators that employees outside the U.S., including China-based employees, could access data on U.S. users.
Implanting a U.S.-wide TikTok ban would present a formidable challenge. Over a billion users visit the TikTok site each month, and substantial commercial interests use TikTok as a platform and rely on its services. A TikTok ban would likely be politically unpopular. It would raise the question of why foreign social media companies are being singled out when there are domestic social media companies, such as Facebook, that are equally capable of disrupting U.S. elections through the spread of propaganda and misinformation.