TikTok is one of the biggest apps of all time. It is the third largest social platform on earth, with over 750 million monthly users around the world. It has more than a billion downloads on the Google Play Store alone.
However, the app’s unclear ties to China’s communist government have made many world powers quite uncomfortable. In 2020, Donald Trump tried to ban the app in the US unsuccessfully. While it is not banned in Russia, Russian users can no longer make new uploads.
Currently, TikTok is outright banned in India and Afghanistan. Several other Asian countries banned the app in the past, but have since reversed it.
As 2022 winds to a close, several US states have banned the app or could possibly do so. Let’s take a look at what this means for the future of TikTok in the US.
Multiple TikTok Bans
Currently, in the US, there are two separate types of TikTok Bans working their way through the government. One applies only to the devices given to government employees by the state.
Due to cybersecurity concerns, TikTok bans on some or all of these devices are in the works in nearly 20 states.
This includes complete bans in Texas, Maryland, Iowa, and New Hampshire. In Florida, TikTok is banned on only some state devices. The second is a complete ban for all Americans.
On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously approved a bill that would require TikTok to be removed from all federal devices. On Tuesday, a group of federal lawmakers led by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced a different proposal. It’s titled the “ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act.” It’s meant to ban the app generally in the United States.
These fears are not new. The US government is not the first to grapple with anxiety surrounding this platform. On top of politically charged controversy, TikTok has faced similar controversies as many other social platforms.
This includes bad faith users, concerns surrounding addictiveness, many failures to protect children from harmful content, and legal issues.
A Brief Look at (Some) of TikTok’s Past Issues
Some experts think that TikTok harms the ability of users to focus over time. The app does this by providing constant short bursts of stimulation. This is especially an issue as many of TikTok’s users globally are young children. So, their minds are still developing.
The fact that Bytedance, the China-based parent company of TikTok, has a separate TikTok-like app approved for use in China, has also given many foreign governments pause. The rest of the world uses TikTok, which has no user controls.
Douyin, on the other hand, which is the version of TikTok used in China, got a dependency reduction feature in 2018. This has made some feel that Bytedance knows their product is addictive and can harm children. Many feel Bytedance is ok with that when it comes to children outside of their home country.
Many Failures to Moderate
Around the world, many say that TikTok specifically targets young children with unsuitable sexual and violent content. It has often failed to moderate.
In the summer of 2019, a 19-year-old man from Curitiba, the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, committed suicide live on TikTok. The Brazilian teen’s live-stream video lingered on TikTok for more than an hour and a half, receiving nearly 500 comments and 15 complaints before being removed. Rather than just promptly contacting police, the Brazilian headquarters of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, was busy monitoring TikTok and other social media platforms to see whether the story leaked publicly.
This is a tragedy. However, most social media users know that most sites struggle with censorship and moderation. Nearly every social media site has had multiple scandals like this.
One of the biggest ones happened years ago when a YouTube children’s creator went viral. He filmed bodies in an infamous ‘Suicide Forest’ in Japan for his child fans.
In fact, in 2022, we have watched Elon Musk struggle with questions of moderation and censorship. He has done this publically as Twitter CEO in real-time.
TikTok is also generally scapegoated as harboring extremist content, and failing to address these issues. However, this can be found on almost every other platform.
Why The US Wants to Ban TikTok Now
Recently, National Intelligence Director Avril Haines and FBI Director Chris Wray raised concerns. The Chinese government could use the app to spy on Americans by collecting data. They warn that they could influence young users with content too.
Many US lawmakers think that Bytedance shares user data with the Chinese communist party without their consent. Bytedance has claimed that they do not.
However, many major social apps use the data of their users unethically. For example, most people remember Facebook’s infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal.
According to Digiday:
In 2020, then-president Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban the app unless it was sold to a U.S.-based company. However, despite reports of potential buyers, the order also faced legal challenges and never went into effect. Since then, the concerns have become more of a bipartisan issue. Last year, U.S. President Joe Biden revoked Trump’s order but still directed the U.S. Dept. Of Commerce to review apps designed and developed in China. (In June, TikTok announced it would move all U.S. data to Oracle’s cloud platform.)
Does Proof Exist that Chinese-Made Apps Are Being Used For Spying?
Bytedance has possibly been caught using TikTok user data unethically several times over the years. One of these events occurred in 2020.
On June 23, 2020, Apple fixed a bug that allowed apps to abuse their permissions. Many apps read what users had published to their clipboards. TikTok was one of the apps caught abusing these permissions.
However, so were many many other apps. The big problem is that due to Apple’s universal keyboard, this glitch meant that many apps had access to what users had published to their clipboards across devices.
While TikTok made headlines for this misdeed, it was a problem that affected millions of iPhone users across a range of apps.
However, many feel that China is trying to dominate the digital sphere via unethical means after numerous instances like this.
Aynne Kokas, Professor of Media Studies and the Director of the East Asia Center at the University of Virginia, and author of the book “Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning The Battle For Digital Sovereignty.” told NPR:
So what’s really interesting about TikTok is that it’s part of a larger Chinese government effort to expand extraterritorial control over digital platforms. So the Chinese government has allowed for and has encouraged Chinese firms to actually engage in national security data audits of any data that’s being gathered by a Chinese firm. Now, TikTok, which has a parent company in ByteDance, which is based in Beijing, is subject to those same national security data audits because it shares data with its parent company, ByteDance.
Is It An Effective Security Strategy to Ban TikTok?
Bytedance has been caught in numerous scandals. These include:
- Illegally collecting user data
- Ignoring the safety and well-being of foreign users
- Amplifying extremist content with their algorithm
- Failing to protect children
- Allegedly sharing data with China’s Communist Party
- Failing to moderate
- Utilizing an algorithm that punishes ‘ugliness’
According to Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr:
“There is now widespread consensus in the U.S. that TikTok presents an unacceptable risk both to our national security and to the safety and privacy of millions of Americans. That is why a broad cross-section of national security experts have gone public in recent weeks to express their concerns with TikTok’s unchecked operations in the U.S. The question is no longer whether TikTok’s ongoing operations will come to an end, but when.”
However, others feel that a ban on TikTok would not actually increase national security. They say it would overall do more harm to everyday citizens than good.
Experts Question a Complete TikTok Ban In Our Current App and Social Media Landscape
Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has said that states are within their rights to pass bans. A wider ban, however, would stifle freedom of speech and censor political activism within the US.
It is important to note that especially many young voters and political activists use TikTok. They organize and spread their messages on the platform.
Banning TikTok nationally would potentially negatively affect the upcoming largest block of voters and political voices in the US.
“TikTok’s security, privacy, and its relationship with the Chinese government is indeed concerning, but a total ban is not the answer. A total ban is not narrowly tailored to the least restrictive means to address the security and privacy concerns, and instead lays a censorial blow against the speech of millions of ordinary Americans.”
Also, banning TikTok is a step toward stifling the voices of mainly younger Americans. However, it is not actually an effective decision based solely on the grounds of security.
The fact of the matter is, countless apps are tied to Chinese firms. If the goal of the US government is user security via the ban of Chinese apps, they would have to ban potentially thousands of apps. Singling out TikTok does not make sense.
According to Kokas, this is why the answer is the US government investing in data protection infrastructure for its citizens. This would be more effective than banning one single app.
Final Thoughts on the Ban TikTok Momentum
Ultimately, several things are true. TikTok has been embroiled in numerous controversies, most of which are similar to US-based social media platforms.
For example, legislators question their algorithms, their failure to stem the tide of extremist content, failure to moderate, abuse of user data, failures to protect child users, and their addictive qualities.
These are conversations which have been had about Instagram and Facebook too. For years, headlines have circulated about how the sites are designed to mimic opioids.
However, fears of China using TikTok to mine user data and spy on users around the world are mounting. There is significant proof that over the years TikTok, like many other apps, have collected user data that it was not supposed to.
What exactly did they do with this data? No one knows.
However, a national TikTok ban may not be the best way to address this issue, as Chinese publishers have thousands of other apps on the Google Play and App Stores.
What do you think? Comment below.
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