Washington Is Turning Against TikTok. Should Users Be Worried About a Ban?
The future of Tiktok in the U.S. is increasingly perilous after a prominent Democratic Senator raised national security concerns over the Chinese-owned social media platform, citing fears that user data from around 100 million Americans could be shared with Beijing.
On Thursday, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet joined a growing number of Democrats to take issue with TikTok, calling on Apple and Google to remove the video platform from its app stores. Bennet—a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee—outlined his concerns in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.
“No company subject to CCP (Chinese Communist Party) dictates should have the power to accumulate such extensive data on the American people or curate content to nearly a third of our population,” Bennet wrote, referring to the millions of Americans who use the app regularly. “Given these risks, I urge you to remove TikTok from your respective app stores immediately.”
Bennet also warned that China’s government could compel TikTok to influence what U.S. users see on the app. “Beijing’s requirement raises the obvious risk that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could weaponize TikTok… [to] manipulate the content Americans receive to advance China’s interests,” Bennet wrote.
Rising concerns about security
Leaders across the U.S. political spectrum say they are concerned that Chinese internet technology company ByteDance, which owns TikTok, is required by Chinese law to make TikTok data available to the CCP.
In December, a counter-surveillance bipartisan bill was introduced to Congress that could result in a nationwide ban of the app. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is due to hold a vote this month on the bill.
TikTok has already been banned from federal government devices and some college campuses have restricted access to the app on school devices and WiFi servers due to restrictions that states have passed.
Republicans had previously been the most ardent critics of the app, with the Trump administration’s unsuccessful attempt to outlaw it alongside another Chinese app, WeChat, in September 2020. But the move was twice blocked by the courts, who said Trump officials “acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner by failing to consider obvious alternatives” for the app.
More recently, Democrats such as Senator Dick Durbin have also called on Americans to boycott the app.
Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr has also advocated for a ban on TikTok, although his agency does not have the authority to regulate app stores. In a November interview with TIME, he stated that the FCC’s past dealings with banned Chinese telecom companies, such as Huawei and ZTE, have shaped his stance on the issue. “As a practical matter, I do not see a path forward that’s short of a ban,” Carr said. “Yes, people love TikTok, but my response is that it’s more than just a platform for sharing funny videos or dance memes—it really operates underneath that as a huge national security concern.”
What a ban would mean
A blanket ban would leave U.S. content creators without access to ad revenue on the platform or its Creator Fund, which allows them to monetize their videos if they have at least 10,000 followers and 100,000 views in a 30-day period.
TikTok users are paid according to how many followers they have on the app. It is estimated that content creators with 100,000 followers or more can get paid $200 to $1,000 a month. Creators with 1 million or more followers can get paid $1,000 to over $5,000 a month.
Anton Dahbura, the executive director of Johns Hopkins University’s Information Security Institute, says the biggest issue in the debate on TikTok’s future is that users are largely unaware of the true risks of foreign governments using their user data. “Most people’s gut reaction is ‘Well I’m not doing anything, I’m not working anywhere sensitive—I don’t think this really applies to me,’” he says. “But people would be shocked about how our trails of breadcrumbs from our mobile devices and other platforms can be used, especially by nation states, and in different ways that can be a threat to national security.”
TikTok does damage control
TikTok has been in confidential negotiations with the Biden Administration’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, for two years now. The company also presented a 90-page proposal in August on how it would prevent the Chinese government from having access to this data by storing it on domestic servers on American-owned software, the New York Times reported.
TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, has this month been meeting with think tanks and interested groups in Washington to share how the company plans to prevent data collection from its American users. Zi Chew is set to appear before a House committee in March to discuss TikTok’s data security practices.
But the Biden Administration faces a major challenge in regulating the app, given its highly influential and widely popular cultural phenomenon, while also balancing the tense U.S.-China relations and adapting to the new reality of an internet dominated by non-American companies.
“The Chinese government has always asked for legal compliance by Chinese companies in international economic cooperation,” Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said in a statement to TIME in November. “We hope the U.S. side will provide an open, fair, impartial and non-discriminatory environment for Chinese companies, and not be so paranoid as to overstretch the concept of national security to apply discriminatory and exclusionary policies.”
It is currently unclear how much weight Bennet’s letter will carry among the technology giants he has called on, but with pressure mounting from all sides, the app store owners are paying attention.
“I think that the best path forward is to take the mitigation steps necessary, because TikTok is now under the microscope and that’s a good thing,” Dahbura says. “And then open up a broader conversation about the balance between the benefits of having access to user data and the privacy risks.”
Write to Armani Syed at firstname.lastname@example.org and Nik Popli at email@example.com.