China’s TikTok is awful. It’s a spy. A brain drain. The US has no business banning it

Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press file photo
·3 min read

China’s TikTok app is a sophisticated surveillance tool used to harvest personal and sensitive information from American citizens, said Brendan Carr, commissioner with the Federal Communications Commission, this week.

The Chinese government has access to Americans’ private data, BuzzFeed recently reported.

Calling TikTok a threat to national security, Carr made a written request to Apple and Google to remove the social media platform from the digital giants’ online stores.

In the first quarter of this year, the wildly popular video sharing app was downloaded nearly 19 million times on Google and Apple devices, according to Carr’s letter. He wants access to TikTok restricted immediately.

But wait: Is asking for its removal really the right approach for the United States, a representative democracy, with its First Amendment free speech clause?

“TikTok is not just another video app,” Carr, a Republican, argued this week on Twitter. “That’s the sheep’s clothing. It harvests swaths of sensitive data that new reports show are being accessed in Beijing. I’ve called on @Apple & @Google to remove TikTok from their app stores for its pattern of surreptitious data practices.”

As of Wednesday, there was no word on how Apple or Google would respond to Carr’s demand.

We’re not surprised that China is using TikTok to spy on American citizens. The U.S. government has proposed rules to expand oversight of apps, such as TikTok, that could be used by foreign adversaries to obtain data. Those rules would allow the federal government to order the apps’ owners to submit to audits and inspections of their data and code.

The government does have a role to play, though. The feds can and should issue advisories informing parents about the risks of TikTok, or any other apps that pose risks to children.

But a ban? That’s where we draw a line on the screen. Much of our basic personal information is already publicly available to third-party apps. So why single out one in particular?

Besides, we’ve been through this already. The Trump administration’s attempt to ban the app was halted by a federal judge, and it was ultimately dropped by the Biden administration. So, it’s probably too late to try that again.

To be sure, Americans seem aware their personal data isn’t secure in the internet era. But they don’t seem to know what to do about it. And they’re voting with their feet — or fingers — downloading apps with gusto.

In the U.S., about 80 million people actively use TikTok per month according to Wallaroo, a data science company. About 60% of users are female while 40% are male. Those between the ages of 16 and 24 make up 60% of the app’s audience.

Those figures represent a lot of revenue. But beside the First Amendment objections, how much should the government interfere with a private capitalist enterprise? Once you order one social media app out, you’re going down a slippery slope toward government intervention into more and more information.

We know one particular public official who would love that. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, has been beating his “Tyranny of Big Tech” drum for a while. Hawley’s feeble attempt to take down Silicon Valley went nowhere.

The federal government has the right to warn us about potential security concerns. And yes, using TikTok can put Americans’ privacy at risk. We need to examine the best way to deal with those dangers. But an outright U.S. government ban isn’t the solution.