Due to its ties to the Chinese government, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee has been engaging in an ongoing investigation into social media giant TikTok. The committee voted on 1 March to back legislation granting the Biden administration power to ban TikTok and other apps believed to pose national security threats. This is an escalation of the ultimatum posed by the U.S. demanding that Chinese owners of the app sell their stake or risk a U.S. ban. However, in order to go to Biden for approval, the measure would have to go through both the House and the Senate.
The social media app, which boasts over a billion users globally, allows people to post short 30-second to one-minute clips for users to view. Many Americans have found fame and fortune on the app, which has given way to a new wave of influencers, many of whom are teenagers. Security concerns about the app have arisen due to its owner, the Chinese company ByteDance. China’s authoritarian government has nearly unlimited control over both its nation's tech companies and their data, leading to concerns over the security of American data.
These concerns are not unfounded. It was previously discovered that ByteDance had accessed American users’ private data and admitted to spying on journalists and obtaining their IP addresses. However, the company has claimed these were isolated incidents by individual employees who were immediately fired. The second concern held by politicians is that ByteDance is using TikTok’s algorithm to influence the media Americans consume, especially by censoring topics that reflect poorly on China, such as Tibetan independence and Tiananmen Square.
While threats to ban TikTok have popped up several times over the last few years, a recent escalation in efforts indicates a permanent farewell to the app in the U.S.. The U.S. federal government and half of the U.S’s states have already banned the use of TikTok on government devices and networks. This is following in the footsteps of the UK, Canada and Belgium, and is one step behind India, which has banned the app entirely.
TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew has faced an onslaught of interviews over the past month from U.S. government officials, and has had to argue that consumer data is both private and protected and that “misinformation and propaganda has no place on our platform.” He also repeatedly brought up “Project Texas”, which would place all of TikTok’s data under the U.S. corporation Oracle. However, as of now, this project is not fully operational, and Mr Chew has confirmed that ByteDance engineers have access to users’ personal information data. As such, U.S. politicians have argued that if engineers in China had access to users’ data, it would mean that the Chinese government would likely have access to it as well.
China’s foreign ministry has responded to this investigation by emphasising that it does not ask companies to provide data from other countries. This does not mean that the Chinese government does not have access to it.
However, after spending over four hours in one day questioning Mr Chew, both Republican and Democrat politicians seem to be united in their feelings against the continuation of TikTok. In the current political climate, this is an unprecedented level of unity–and is not a promising sign for TikTok’s future in the U.S.
One of the largest questions that have risen against this potential ban is its constitutionality. The First Amendment explicitly guarantees the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which means it’s difficult to discern where that line falls in the larger matter of security and privacy. Furthermore, Mr Chew made an effective point about the U.S.’s history with data protection and brought up the 2018 scandal where British company Cambridge Analytica collected the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent.
Ultimately, only time will tell if TikTok will be fully banned in the U.S. While the process is still ongoing, TikTok’s future in the U.S. does not look promising.