Will the U.S. ban TikTok?

Business & Technology

Could the collapse of TikTok in the American market come even faster than its meteoric rise? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and now President Trump have said the U.S. government is “looking at” banning the app because of its Chinese ownership.

illustration of two phones with tiktok logos, scribbled over to represent the prospect of tiktok being banned by the u.s. government

It’s been a tough 10 months for TikTok, the video app owned by Beijing-based ByteDance that has taken the global Gen Z social media market by storm. Since September 2019, when the Guardian revealed how Chinese censorship practices had been applied to the company’s flagship overseas product, there has been a stream of bad news for TikTok.

  • A 17-year-old American Muslim girl, Feroza Aziz, found her account suspended in November 2019 after posting a video criticizing the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang. Her account was restored, but not before the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, and others published feature stories about the incident.
  • The U.S. government announced it was reviewing the national security implications of ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of another Chinese social media company, Musical.ly, also in November 2019. Musical.ly was the predecessor to TikTok, and forms the core of its trademark lip-syncing function.
  • The American military banned use of TikTok in January 2020, following a warning from the Pentagon in December 2019 about data security. Other American government departments and the Australian military followed suit soon after.
  • American senators Josh Hawley and Rick Scott introduced legislation in March 2020 to ban TikTok for all federal employees.
  • More censorship problems with TikTok were revealed in March 2020 by The Intercept, which reported that TikTok had “instructed moderators to suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.”
  • India totally banned TikTok in late June as retaliation for a border dispute, though the government also cited data security concerns.

American teens haven’t been dissuaded one bit from using the social media app, despite the controversies and clampdowns. The app has 165 million downloads in the U.S., compared with nearly 200 million downloads of TikTok’s sister app, Douyin, in China, and 611 million downloads in India, which was TikTok’s largest market before the country’s ban.

But the U.S. government, which has many bones to pick with China and clearly views the app’s data practices with suspicion, may soon force them to abandon the app entirely.

  • The U.S. is “certainly looking at” the option of banning TikTok “very seriously,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday, July 6. Pompeo reinforced his message today, per Reuters:

The comments that I made about a particular company earlier this week fall in the context of us evaluating the threat from the Chinese Communist Party…So what you’ll see the administration do is take actions that preserve and protect that information and deny the Chinese Communist Party access to private information that belongs to Americans.

President Trump today repeated Pompeo’s line that the U.S. government is “looking at” banning TikTok, though instead of concerns about data security, Trump cited “what happened with China with this virus,” per Bloomberg. Bloomberg and Reuters both also report that the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Justice Department are looking into the data privacy practices of TikTok.

TikTok has long denied that it shares, or has ever shared, user information with the Chinese government, and ByteDance has tried to take steps to distance TikTok from its Beijing origins, including hiring an American CEO for TikTok. According to a report last month by PingWest, a new internal policy at ByteDance specifies that “those employees who are currently in China, working on apps and services for the home market, are now largely stripped of access to ‘sensitive data’ of ByteDance’s slew of overseas products, including but not limited to TikTok.”

It’s unclear if this will be too little, too late. Perhaps the Trump administration’s aggressive posture toward China means that there is nothing ByteDance can do to stop whatever is coming.

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