May 2024

TikTok Tug-of-War – App Confronts Proposed US Ban

Written by Positive Team

TikTok Tug-of-War – App Confronts Proposed US Ban

TikTok’s days might be numbered – at least for users located in the United States.

The Chinese-owned short-form video platform, known predominantly as a home for memes and viral dance trends, is facing the far more serious prospect of an outright ban in the States, with governmental concerns around data security and reported links between owner ByteDance and the Chinese government. 

In April, President Joe Biden signed into law a bipartisan bill which legally gives ByteDance a nine-month window to divest from the company, with an additional three-month grace period before a full ban would come into effect. This follows cross-party approval in the US House of Representatives and Senate. 

TikTok’s user base, and other free-speech critics in the US, have argued that any ban is unconstitutional, and represents a dangerous precedent for government censorship. Others have argued that the ban is being introduced without any sufficient evidence, and that privacy concerns can be tackled with comprehensive data privacy legislation.   

Why are the US concerned?

Bipartisan lawmakers in the US have long advocated for restrictions on the ability for TikTok, and by extension ByteDance, to operate in the USA. The government signalled its intention to implement a full ban as far back as 2020 – following a request from then president Donald Trump who viewed the app as a significant national security threat. 

The primary concerns seem to centre on data privacy – and the expectation that the Chinese government may leverage any relationship with ByteDance to syphon valuable personal data on American users for use in espionage or influence operations. TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew has testified to US lawmakers that TikTok has not, and would not, ever provide US user data to the Chinese government – however these promises have failed to alleviate concerns. 

More broadly, there are additional concerns around transparency, particularly in regards to TikTok’s algorithm. In the context of the current geopolitical climate, and the upcoming elections, there is a belief that this could be manipulated, or censored, to shift American perceptions on politically sensitive topics and spread campaigns of disinformation. 

What do users think?

Opinions are split amongst the general US population. Recent polling from the Associated Press concluded that 31% of US adults were in favour of a nationwide ban, 35% were in opposition, and 31% were mixed. As expected, 73% of those who use the app daily would oppose a ban. There are many in America that echo the sentiment of the government, and are deeply concerned about the data privacy and security implications of TikTok’s ownership model. 

For those who do oppose the ban, arguments centre on the removal of an incredibly popular platform for entertainment and self-expression, with over 150 million active users. As such a large platform for American voices, and the range of political discourse that takes place, there are also valid concerns over the impact on free speech, and whether a ban is constitutional. It’s likely that this will form the basis of many legal challenges moving forward. 

TikTok’s Response

As of the time of writing, ​​TikTok has filed a lawsuit, with the aim of blocking the bill from coming into effect. In the lawsuit the company has called the passing of the bill and attempts to block the platform an “extraordinary intrusion on free speech rights”, and has called on the courts to dismiss the ruling as unconstitutional. The Chinese government has also commented on the law, accusing the government of ‘bullying’ an international business – and has signalled its opposition to any proposed sale, making divestment difficult to achieve regardless of the outcomes of any legal challenge.  

TikTok have committed to fighting the implementation of the law through every medium and court possible – and it’s very likely that these conversations rumble on far beyond the initial date for divestment set out in the bill. 

Ultimately, the move from the US to legislate against TikTok is unprecedented and represents a fascinating opportunity, from abroad, for us to discuss the importance of data security, data sovereignty and whether we are right to be concerned about the transfer of data to foreign nations. Following the UK’s own limitations on TikTok – with the recent banning of its use for MPs – technology practitioners and experts, from the UK and beyond, will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of this legal challenge, and the implications it may have on data privacy in their own jurisdictions.

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