Would banning TikTok really protect Americans?

·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Representatives from both parties subjected the CEO of TikTok to an intense grilling during a public congressional hearing last week amid intensifying sentiment to ban the popular social media platform in the United States.

While there were plenty of complaints about the content on the app, the core of the argument in favor of a ban centered around accusations that TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance are tools of China’s government that pose a major national security risk to Americans. Concerns about TikTok’s potential connections to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have existed for years, but the prospects that the app may actually be banned nationwide have become increasingly real in recent weeks.

On Sunday, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said the House would be moving forward with legislation to address national security fears around TikTok. Though he didn’t name a specific bill he might put up for a vote, there has been significant bipartisan support behind a plan unveiled last month that would grant the Biden administration broad authority to regulate tech produced by certain foreign countries, including China. The White House, which has reportedly been trying to convince ByteDance to sell TikTok to a U.S.-based company, has endorsed the bill.

The federal government and more than half of all states have already barred TikTok from official government devices. Blocking all 150 million American users from accessing the app would represent an unprecedented escalation in the ongoing technological power struggle between the U.S. and China.

Why there’s debate

Supporters of a nationwide TikTok ban say the app poses major national security risks for two main reasons. The first is that China’s government can use the app to spy on Americans and gather sensitive information it could exploit to harm the U.S. TikTok executives insist this fear is unfounded, but there have been multiple recent reports that suggest ByteDance has inappropriately accessed the data of American users. The second concern is that China could use TikTok’s sophisticated recommendation algorithm as a propaganda tool to suppress sensitive political topics and promote pro-Chinese viewpoints.

But opponents of banning TikTok, including several prominent progressive Democrats, say there has been no real evidence provided that ByteDance is actually filtering data to the Chinese government. Many make the case that the app is such an important communication tool, especially for younger people, that there needs to be unassailable proof that it's being exploited before such a drastic step is taken. Others argue that a ban would violate free speech rights and the government is unlikely to stop at a single social media platform if it’s given the power to shut down technology it doesn’t like.

Many tech experts also say banning TikTok would do next to nothing to protect Americans’ privacy because any internet user’s data is already widely available to China or anyone else who wants to buy it. They argue that if Congress was truly serious about defending sensitive information, it would pass comprehensive privacy protections that apply to all platforms — not just one that happens to be owned by a rival nation.

What’s next

Despite growing momentum in Congress to do something about TikTok, reports suggest there is still a lot of work to be done to get lawmakers to unify behind a specific plan and determine what role the White House will play.



A more secure replacement would swiftly be adopted if TikTok was banned

“So, should we be concerned about the potential for the Chinese social media platform to be used negatively? Absolutely. As to what to do about it, we lean toward removing it from app stores and cellphone networks. Plenty of websites already exist for viewing videos, and we don't doubt a U.S. company could be created that would rival TikTok (if that's really what we want).” — Clint Cooper, Chattanooga Times Free Press

It’s naive to think China isn’t demanding data from ByteDance

“This is not a company that respects users' privacy. No Chinese company can refuse demands from the Chinese Communist Party for all its data. Because the regime in Beijing is an aggressive and malign autocracy, downloading TikTok onto your phone gives our enemy the power to track your every movement.” — Editorial, Washington Examiner

We shouldn't wait until there’s an obvious crisis to mitigate a potential threat

“Even if the TikTok issue seems largely symbolic right now, the app’s dominance of American media gives China’s government a considerable amount of option value in the event of a crisis. TikTok could become really important, really fast. We shouldn’t let things get to that point.” — Noah Smith, economist

Unless TikTok is sold, the only safe thing to do is ban it

“Simply put, TikTok’s national security risks cannot be meaningfully addressed while ByteDance — a Chinese company answerable by law to requests from the CCP and Chinese intelligence services — remains its owner.” — Bryan Burack, The Hill

If Congress is serious about protecting privacy, banning TikTok is only the first step

“Washington is correct to deal with the immediate risks posed by the single chess piece of TikTok, but it should also see the whole board and plan for the next 20 moves. The history of the rest of the 21st century depends on it.” — Alex Stamos, CNN

The public’s refusal to heed warnings about TikTok’s safety is forcing the government to act

“Ordinarily, if you declare, ‘This app is Chinese spyware and will vacuum up all of your personal data and put it where the Chinese government can use it as it wishes,’ you might expect people to stop using it. We might think the revelation that TikTok is Chinese spyware and that it is exposing minors to inappropriate sexual material and exploiting teens would be sufficient to get people to ditch and uninstall the app. You would think one of those problems would be enough. And yet, TikTok is just getting more and more popular.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review


Giving the government the power to control what we see online is a far more dangerous than TikTok could ever be

“There is every reason to think the U.S. government will misuse this newfound power to unilaterally banish specific social media platforms. … Should we expect the veritable army of federal bureaucrats obsessed with policing speech on social media platforms to narrowly utilize this new mandate to deter foreign threats and focus solely on the CCP? Or should we anticipate that every weapon added to their arsenal is a threat to the free speech rights of everyday Americans?” — Robby Soave, Reason

Congress is too timid to take steps that would meaningfully protect Americans

“Passing a national privacy law that limits the data companies can collect would, in fact, prove a small feat compared to navigating the legal minefield around content moderation enforcement — a path fraught with First Amendment peril. But even if it were within Congress' power to legislate kids away from online harm, why would it limit the scope of that remedy to a single company?” — Dell Cameron, Wired

China can access our data with or without TikTok

“If the Chinese government really wants access to U.S. consumer data, a nationwide ban won’t help. That’s because, right now, there is someone in some part of the world already collecting and selling all kinds of personal information on all of us that China can easily buy. This marketplace of granular databases operates pretty much unchecked.” — Marcela García, Boston Globe

If TikTok is as big of a threat as lawmakers say it is, they have an obligation to prove it

“If there’s a smoking gun that China’s government has used TikTok to harvest Americans’ data or warp our beliefs, U.S. officials need to make that evidence public. If the fear is what the Chinese Communist Party might do with TikTok, say so. And then explain how the U.S. government will prioritize the riskiest foreign technologies, consider narrower protections than outright bans and distinguish legitimate threats from hysteria.” — Shira Ovide, Washington Post

ByteDance is not in any way an arm of the Chinese government

“I think what people don’t seem to understand is that TikTok is not an organ of the Communist Party, and it is a fallacy to continually repeat the fact that any Chinese company is, in fact, indistinguishable from the state and has no purpose other than to advance the political and military objectives of the Chinese government when it’s obviously a commercial company.” — Milton Mueller, tech policy expert, to Foreign Policy

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Mario Tama/Getty Images, Getty Images (2), Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images