Will TikTok be Banned in the U.S.?

TikTok, the popular app known for short and entertaining videos, is now facing political heat because of the fact that it is established in China. The platform was accused of being in touch with the Chinese government by supplying them with user data.

A campaign began running ads on Facebook that asked people to sign a petition requesting a ban on TikTok, increasing the President’s pressure on the application’s manufacturer. The ad references the platform’s ability to access material stored on phone clipboards, which has already been removed by the developer.

Other Apps Collect Data as Well, But That’s Not Important Now

However, there are numerous other apps that have been demonstrated to also snoop into users’ clipboards and others (American) that have a history of selling private data to other entities without the user knowing – why aren’t they getting banned as well? If we’re trying to be fair, let’s do it all the way; this only shows that things aren’t exactly how they claim to be.

Developed by ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech company, TikTok’s popularity went off in the past year. The app has been downloaded more than two billion times, as per the research company Sensor Tower, with India being the largest market, followed by Brazil and the United States. Although based on China, the app is not available in the country, and the CEO, Kevin Mayer, is American. 

TikTok video. [Image: CC0 Public Domain]
Now TikTok is under fire because certain governments claim the Chinese authorities might have sway over the application. Following an unrelated skirmish, India has recently banned TikTok, and countries like the U.S. and Australia are also considering blocking the app.

Why Banning TikTok?

Politicians have claimed that the Chinese government could use the video-sharing app to spy on U.S. citizens. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, users who downloaded the app are putting ‘private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.’

Trump, however, cited a different reason for a potential TikTok​ ban: punishing China for its response to the outbreak

“It’s a big business,” Trump said, but the White House did not provide additional comments, and neither did the U.S. Department of State.

It is not clear how likely a ban is, but according to analysts, one would not be easy to execute. Betsy Cooper, a tech policy expert and director of the Aspen Policy Hub, said that there will always be concerns when apps from foreign companies collect user data. Again, we should question why the U.S. government – through certain apps – collecting large amounts of user data is not concerning at all.

TikTok account. [Image: Aaron Weiss/Unsplash]
She added: “It’s unclear how much effort the administration will put into actually investigating the seriousness of the specific security concerns with the app versus using this as a threat for broader geopolitical leverage.”

TikTok’s Response to a Possible Ban

Concerns about privacy and national security aren’t something new to TikTok​, which has tried hard to push back against political scrutiny. Back in 2019, TikTok​ stated in a blog post that all user data from U.S. is stored in the United States, with a backup in Singapore. The app’s data centers are outside China, and none of its data is liable to Chinese law.

“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the U.S.,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”

The U.S. government would have to find a legally sound reason to determine Apple and Google to remove the app from their online stores, but the companies might fight back.

“The tech community will be very hesitant to go along with this app ban,” said Wayne Lam, an independent technology analyst. “It sets a precedent for the government to ban other apps or even for other global apps to be inaccessible to the U.S. market.”

You’ll Probably Still be Able to Use TikTok Even if Banned

Even if the app were to be banned, people could still install apps on Android devices without getting them from the Google Play Store.

TikTok on Google Play Store.

That’s why Carolina Milanesi, a tech analyst at Creative Strategies, said: “I don’t know at that point how you police that.”

The U.S. Commerce Department could also have TikTok​ on its ‘entity’ list, blocking the company’s access to technology. Chinese tech company Huawei is already on that list, unable to use any of the services and elements mobile devices usually get.

The U.S. administration has limited authority to ban any particular piece of software, such as an app. However, it could potentially lobby the Congress to ordain legislation that aims at TikTok​, Kurt Opsahl, general counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group, said.

Currently, “there is no law that would authorize the federal government to ban ordinary American from using an app,” Opsahl explained.

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