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 to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, and the Chinese Communist Party. But experts say those seeking to ban its use are focusing on the wrong problem.
In 2020, the Trump administration tried to ban the platform and failed. Now dozens of institutions, state governments and federal legislatures across the country have taken steps to ban it.
Most recently, on February 7, in a close vote, the Virginia Senate passed legislation banning TikTok and the Chinese messaging app WeChat from state government devices. Republican state Sen. Ryan McDougle, who introduced the legislation, says TikTok is “invasive.”
“TikTok is voraciously collecting data about its users in the United States,” McDougle told Yahoo News. “TikTok is actually an arm of the People’s Republic of China and operated under its leadership.”
On Jan. 24, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced legislation at 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 from 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 that 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 the nation as a whole.”
In response to the controversial federal legislation, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement to The Hill news outlet: “We hope that [Hawley] will focus his energies on efforts to address these issues holistically rather than pretend that banning a single service would address any of the issues he is concerned about or make Americans safer.”
With tensions rising with China, especially after a Chinese balloon was shot down on US soil, 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.
Over 20% of Americans use TikTok, with most users aged 18 to 29, according to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center.
“TikTok is part of people’s lives across the U.S. Whether they’re going to TikTok to mobilize for social change or to make a daily wage, there are really high costs here,” Kian Vesteinsson, senior technology and democracy analyst at Freedom House , told Yahoo News.
Vesteinsson says a nationwide ban on TikTok would be a “mistake” and that the real problem is the US’s lack of laws protecting data privacy at the federal level on all applications.
“Instead of a ban, the US government should strengthen privacy protections and strengthen transparency requirements for all social media platforms,” he said.
Lia Holland, director of communications for internet nonprofit Fight for the Future, says TikTok isn’t the only app that stores information about its users.
“To be clear, every app out there is trying to imitate 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 United States currently does not have federal legislation to protect data on social media platforms. “It’s honestly embarrassing,” Holland said. “The US government needs to act to protect all of us, no matter what app we use now.”
Social media applications are one of the biggest sources of data collection, according to experts, and in the US over 65% of adults have social media accounts.
“The data that these apps collect about all of us right now can be used in all sorts of nefarious ways now and in the future — whether it’s for abuse, stalking or to make employment decisions,” Holland said.
According to experts, a nationwide TikTok ban would have a negative impact globally. “A ban undermines the credibility of the United States to advocate against censorship at the international level,” Vesteinsson said. “Our research shows that authorities learn from each other and copy restrictive policies and actions from foreign governments to implement in their own countries.”
A ban of that magnitude, he said, could “serve as 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, senior research fellow at Data & Society and visiting fellow at Duke University.
“Meta has a TikTok clone called Reels. Alphabet also has a TikTok clone called Shorts, which they developed pretty much directly in response to the ban on TikTok in India,” she told Yahoo News.
As the social media platform faces scrutiny in the US, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said “tough conversations” will be needed as he focuses on the platform’s future.
“I’m not taking this conversation about ‘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 children and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” the committee said.
“We understand that we are starting from a deficit of trust and that trust is not won by a move, a silver bullet, a meeting,” Chew said.
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