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The Case Against Banning TikTok
There are legitimate concerns—but outlawing the app would be gravely disproportionate.
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There are few tech platforms in the United States as beloved and reviled as TikTok. It boasts more than 150 million U.S. users—and seemingly everyone in power wants to ban it.
Always on the forefront of authoritarianism, Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a TikTok-banning bill back in January. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.) followed up in March with the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act, a measure that could be used to ban TikTok along with basically any app that has even tangential ties to a “foreign adversary.” Last month, Montana’s governor signed into law a bill banning TikTok (it’s already being challenged in federal court.)
All of this comes on the heels of the Trump administration’s 2020 attempt to ban U.S. companies from doing business with ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company. And Trump’s attempt being thwarted in federal court hasn’t stopped the Biden administration from threatening a ban of its own.
At a March hearing, members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce laid out the main cases against the popular video-sharing app. There are concerns that potential ties between ByteDance and the Chinese government will allow the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to access sensitive data about U.S. citizens gathered by the app. There are fears that the app’s algorithms are exposing Americans to pro-communist propaganda and suppressing anti-CCP content. And there is concern about the effect TikTok is having on minors, with critics concerned that it’s exposing them to frivolous, addictive, or dangerous content.
Not all of these concerns are totally illegitimate. But they tend to be wrapped up in a lot more moral panic than facts. Let’s take them each in turn, starting with the alleged national security threat posed by the accessibility of U.S. user data.
It’s true that ByteDance—incorporated in the Cayman Islands and funded by capital from all over the world, including America—originated in Beijing; that its owners are Chinese; and that the Chinese state has some influence over China’s version of TikTok, called Douyin (TikTok itself is actually banned in China for not following CCP censorship requirements.)
TikTok also collects a lot of U.S. user data, albeit similar to what is collected by many social media apps. One of the major fears aired in Congress about TikTok is that the CCP could access this data. The company’s CEO says this doesn’t happen, and thus far no one has produced any hard evidence that it does.
But many people aren’t convinced—and a recent lawsuit filed in San Francisco by a former ByteDance executive hasn’t helped.
The employee, Yintao Yu, was fired from ByteDance in 2018 after starting with the company in August 2017 and taking months of leave beginning in early 2018. Last year, Yu sued, alleging that he was fired for speaking up about “disability discrimination” and ByteDance allegedly scraping content from apps such as Instagram and Snapchat. ByteDance moved the suit to federal court, where it was dismissed when Yu didn’t respond. Early last month, Yu re-filed in San Francisco, this time with legal counsel, making basically the same argument as he had earlier.
But then, in mid-May, Yu filed an amended complaint alleging that data from users in “countries like the United States” is “accessible to the CCP via a backdoor channel.” Yu claims to have seen “the backdoor channel in the code.” Should such a backdoor exist, the Chinese government could theoretically access U.S. user data. (Notably, Yu does not claim to have knowledge that it is actually accessing it.)
Yu’s rocky tenure at TikTok and the disputed facts about why and how he was let go don’t necessarily impugn his credibility. Nor do his potential money troubles (he filed for bankruptcy earlier this year), or the strange way he has handled his lawsuits. But they should be enough to give us pause; at this point, it’s unclear who to believe.
Still, let’s say for the sake of argument that Yu’s claims, or at least some of them, are true. Does it make a difference? I don’t think so.
There are myriad ways for foreign actors to access U.S. user data without special access. If China really wanted to, they could glean plenty by buying it from the vast data brokerage market. But why would they want it? It’s unclear how the sort of data users share with TikTok—and other social apps—could be of use to or weaponized by the Chinese government or other foreign adversaries en masse.
That’s not to say that specific people or classes of people shouldn’t be careful. Forbes reported last year that TikTok collects approximate location data from U.S. users, and some (now fired) employees within the company tracked several journalists as part of an attempt to discover who within ByteDance was leaking to them. If rogue ByteDance staff can do that, it means Chinese authorities theoretically could access that location data, too.
That’s a case for certain folks to exercise extra caution. Theoretical risk is a fine enough measure to justify banning TikTok on government devices; to be honest, authorities would probably do well to ban all sorts of social media on them. And if TikTok is suspected of violating specific U.S. laws, regulators and law enforcement should by all means investigate and initiate action as warranted.
But this is not an argument to ban the app for all Americans, most of whom neither ByteDance employees nor the CCP could care less about. If I’m not concerned about my data—or decide that the benefits of sharing it outweigh any trade offs—then I should be allowed to make that choice. And so should you.
The second major concern about TikTok is that its algorithms could be used to expose Americans to pro-Communist propaganda, or to suppress anti-Communist views. For example, Yu claims that the Chinese government guided ByteDance on how to advance “core Communist values” and that it “regulated and monitored the company” (though he does not elaborate on whether this applies only to ByteDance’s Chinese apps, or to TikTok, too.)
But some of the ways he describes China acting with regard to ByteDance don’t differ that much from how the United States acts toward American social media companies. They are carefully regulated and monitored, and officials exert pressure on tech execs to suppress certain sorts of content and elevate other messages. This is troubling, but nobody is using it to argue that these apps should be outright banned.
And the fact remains that exposing Americans to pro-Communist content isn’t illegal. We allow Americans to access state-run media from around the world, and U.S. media and tech platforms feature all sorts of anti-American and anti-democracy sentiment. Americans have a right to read and view this content even if authorities may wish they wouldn’t.
Finally, others suggest TikTok is a national threat because it wastes young Americans’ time or gets them fixated on frivolous things. Calling TikTok “digital fentanyl” has become a popular trope.
But if these were enough to justify a ban, all social media—and probably TV, video games, and an array of other technologies—should be banned, too. Again, nobody is seriously suggesting this, because it would be a dangerous overstep of government power and infringe upon the rights of millions of Americans. This standard should apply to TikTok, too.
The panic about TikTok also totally overshadows other considerations. For one, it’s myopic to dismiss TikTok as having no social or economic benefits. The app provides millions of Americans with entertainment, information, community, and an outlet for creative expression. It employs thousands of Americans. And it’s used by many more to market their products, services, and ideas.
“If TikTok gets banned, my tutoring app which employs 5,000 tutors will have to close down,” Amin Shaykho, CEO and founder of Kadama, tells me via email. “Approximately 90% of our student acquisition comes from TikTok … it has been life changing as college founders.”
The app has also helped cut into the market dominance of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, which U.S. authorities have for years argued have too much power.
Meanwhile, banning the app would certainly create a dangerous precedent. The logic behind many anti-TikTok proposals could easily be extended to any tech that originates abroad, or from an array of countries deemed adversaries (as Senator Warner’s RESTRICT Act proposes). This could deny Americans access to all sorts of innovative, useful, and fun new communications tools, cut off Americans from global connectivity, and further entrench the dominance of existing U.S. digital networks. It’s naïve to think a TikTok ban would stop with TikTok.
And the slippery slope of techno-nationalism doesn’t end within American borders, of course. Do U.S. leaders really think we can just start banning foreign apps, demanding they divest to U.S. companies, or requiring them to store U.S. user data locally without other countries following suit against our tech companies?
This sort of reciprocity would obviously be bad news for U.S. businesses. But it would also limit Americans’ ability to spread information and ideas abroad, working against efforts to counter communism and authoritarianism and threatening the very foundations of a free, global internet, not to mention obliterating a liberalizing connection between the United States and China or other countries of concern.
America is not communist China. We abide by a Constitution that sets limits on government authority. We pride ourselves on free markets and free speech. We don’t simply ban entire businesses or avenues of communication because of some theoretical risks.
Any action against TikTok must be narrowly tailored to address discrete issues for which we have evidence. And making the United States more like China in order to avoid Chinese influence seems counterproductive, at best. There are ways to address legitimate concerns about TikTok without resorting to the tactics of the Chinese Communist Party ourselves.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
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