A proposal to ban TikTok in the U.S. has garnered bipartisan support and raised bigger questions about data access laws.
The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into TikTok on March 17, 2023, including allegations that the company spied on American journalists. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to defend the application on March 24, 2023. His testimony touched on TikTok's consumer privacy and data security policies, the platform's mental health impact and security concerns about the platform's parent company, ByteDance.
This is not the first time the United States has threatened to ban TikTok. In 2020, the Trump administration attempted to use its emergency power to block the application.
TikTok is a private company with more than 150 million users in the United States and more than 1 billion active users worldwide. TikTok has proposed a plan -- Project Texas -- to move all U.S. data to the United States to allay privacy and security concerns.
Why does the US want to ban TikTok?
The United States wants to ban the application for several reasons. The main reason is national security. U.S. lawmakers are concerned that ByteDance may leak U.S. user data to the Chinese government if the Chinese government forced them to.
"Today, the CCP's [Chinese Communist Party's] laws require Chinese companies like ByteDance to spy on their behalf," Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said during the hearing.
Shou Zi Chew told U.S. lawmakers that China-based ByteDance employees would have access to some U.S. TikTok user data until Project Texas is implemented. TikTok does not condone any effort by its own employees to access U.S. user data.
TikTok releases a transparency report where it discloses formal legal requests for user data. The biannual information request report shows how many requests were made in each country. According to the latest report, requests for information by law enforcement reached an all-time high in the first half of 2022, with 4,054 total requests around the globe.
Every testimonial in the five-hour congressional hearing touched on different topics, but some of the main focuses included the following:
- Addictiveness. While TikTok's addictiveness is a concern, it has a feature that tells users to leave the application after 60 minutes.
- Misinformation. TikTok claims it does not allow misinformation as part of its community guidelines and actively works to remove it. It also does not accept political ads.
- Children's safety. There are many concerns over children abusing or misusing the application. However, TikTok has different UX for users under 13. For example, they cannot go viral and cannot use the private messaging feature.
- Mental health. Content that promotes eating disorders, tobacco use or suicide is a concern. However, TikTok -- like most social media companies -- has a content moderation policy and aims to remove all violating content.
- Selling data. Gathering and selling data that TikTok doesn't need to make a profit is a concern. TikTok claims it does not sell data to data brokers.
- Data security. Data leaks are a concern. Data leaks are a risk with any online service and common with social media. TikTok -- and other social media platforms -- use data access protocols to protect and organize data into categories of sensitivity.
The U.S. already bans the application on federal and public sector employees' phones and on state employees' phones in 32 of 50 states. Several states have also recently sued TikTok. The first state to sue the company was Indiana, on claims that the application serves users inappropriate content and violates consumer protection laws in its data collection practices. Another lawsuit came from Arkansas, which sued TikTok, ByteDance and Facebook's parent company, Meta, over claims that the companies violate the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Montana was the first U.S. state to pass legislation banning TikTok on all personal devices. The bill went into effect in January 2024 and will fine app stores that host TikTok within state lines $10,000 per day. The ban would not penalize individual users.
There has been opposition to the bill from both TikTok, other U.S. lawmakers and TikTok users, all of whom deem the law unconstitutional and in violation of the First Amendment.
A group of TikTok users sued the state of Montana to overturn the ban in May 2023. TikTok financed the suit by paying the legal fees of the five TikTok users suing the state. This is separate from TikTok's own lawsuit to block the Montana ban.
Several universities have also banned the app on their networks.
What countries is TikTok banned in?
The United States is not the only country that has full or partial TikTok bans in place. Partial bans are usually limited to government or public sector employees. Full bans apply to all citizens.
Some countries have full bans on TikTok, including Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Somalia.
Regions with partial bans and the devices they're banned on include the following:
- Australia -- on devices issued by some individual government agencies.
- Belgium -- on federal government work devices.
- Canada -- on government-issued devices.
- Denmark -- on Defense Ministry staff devices.
- European Union -- on Parliament, Commission and EU Council staff devices.
- France -- on professional phones of civil servants.
- Latvia -- on work devices at the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
- New Zealand -- on Parliament members' and lawmakers' work devices.
- Norway -- on government work devices.
- Taiwan -- on government devices.
- United Kingdom -- on government devices.
- United States -- on federal government devices and systems.
Other countries have banned TikTok in the past and have since rescinded the bans. Two examples are Indonesia and Pakistan, which both banned the application temporarily due to explicit content.
How would the U.S. enforce a ban?
It's unclear how the United States would prohibit citizens from using the application on their personal devices. One likely scenario -- if a ban is ordered -- involves ordering popular app stores, such as Google Play and Apple App Store, to remove the app from their platforms. This would make it much harder to acquire the app but wouldn't remove it from phones that already have it downloaded. On phones with the app installed, there would be no more updates or new features, and the apps would slowly become harder to use.
Another possible scenario involves forcing internet and telecommunications providers to block TikTok, which would make it impossible to use. The Indian government blocked TikTok entirely using this method.
A third option involves criminalizing the application, which has been done before but not with an application anywhere near the size of TikTok.
What types of data does TikTok collect?
One point of contention is the safety of TikTok's recommendation engine. The recommendation engine uses behavioral data to determine the user's interests and feed them relevant content. Some data that TikTok uses to do this is the following:
- How long a user stays on a page.
- If a user shares a video.
- If a user swipes away from a video.
- If a user comments on a video.
- If a user likes a video.
- Basic login information, such as name, age, phone number and email address.
- Location data.
- IP address.
- Biometric data.
Project Texas is a proposal from TikTok to move U.S. data into a third-party cloud infrastructure to create more transparency and security. Only a team of U.S. residents would have access to that user data.
All TikTok user data is currently stored in Singapore and Virginia. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said in an interview with The New York Times that he expected data localization to be a theme in the future. He also said that TikTok's goal of providing localized data management for each country is a novel one that is challenging and expensive.
Project Clover is a similar initiative, designed to store data locally in Ireland and Norway for European data.
TikTok vs. Douyin
Both TikTok and Douyin are owned by ByteDance.
While TikTok is not available in mainland China, Douyin is a short-form video application that is often portrayed as the Chinese version of TikTok. Douyin has to follow Chinese media laws, and a Chinese phone number is required to download Douyin. TikTok is available in many countries around the world and is beholden to the laws of the country it operates in.
Douyin has more features than TikTok. For example, Douyin has hotel booking and e-payment features in the application. It also offers full-length movies, in addition to standard short-form video. Douyin preceded TikTok. Douyin was launched in 2016, whereas TikTok was launched in 2017.
ByteDance owns other apps as well. At the time of this writing, its newest is Lemon8, a health, fitness and wellness app.
Challenges of banning TikTok
One of the main challenges of banning TikTok is alienating young users politically. TikTok's user base skews young. To ban access to the app would negatively influence a lot of young voters who enjoy the app.
Another challenge is that many SMBs rely on the platform for their business model. Many multinational corporations also have their own TikTok accounts and rely on the platform for some portion of business. There are petitions to save the app and protests against the ban, with support from lawmakers as well.
A third challenge of banning TikTok is gathering and presenting evidence that the application is a national security threat or a danger to users in some way. This would involve differentiating the application from other social media companies, such as Meta and Twitter, that also collect user data; are vulnerable to breaches and privacy concerns; and are -- to a degree -- under the control of their operating country's government.
The investigation into TikTok has reinvigorated a larger conversation about data privacy on all social platforms, sparking calls for data privacy law reform.