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When you scroll through TikTok, you see Selena and Haley drama, IShowSpeed, quick recipes, and cute cats. That’s not what governments around the world see, especially the White House.
For some time, the US government has been accusing ByteDance, the company behind the TikTok platform, of stealing user data.
It sees it as a big national security risk, and it’s closer than ever to imposing a TikTok ban.
American officials are now requesting a change in ownership, asking for Chinese stakeholders to divest. If that doesn’t happen, the Biden administration is ready to block the video-sharing app in the entire country.
UPDATE: The UK government has since also announced that it will ban TikTok on all phones and other devices its ministers and civil servants use on security grounds.
Why is TikTok getting banned?
TikTok is getting banned due to concerns in the White House that the data it collects could fall into the hands of the Chinese government.
Unless owners from China sell their stakes, the US will impose a nationwide block.
The first accusations of data harvesting came as soon as the platform boomed in 2020 with 850 million downloads.
Then-president Donald Trump threatened to block the app if Microsoft didn’t acquire it. However, federal courts later blocked the plan, together with the WeChat ban.
The current administration has taken a dim view of TikTok as well. However, this is the first time it has expressed the idea of restricting its use in the entire country.
The Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) unanimously recommended that Chinese owners divest from the app.
It didn’t provide an explanation of what divestiture would mean in practice.
General Paul Nakasone has called the app a “loaded gun,” while FBI Director Christopher Wray spelled out the agency’s top three concerns over TikTok:
- The algorithm – The ForYou page system could serve to influence operations against the country.
- Data access – The Chinese government could use the information on individuals for spy operations.
- Software control – TikTok has access to millions of devices and their location data and sensors like cameras and microphones.
Previously, the White House introduced a TikTok ban on devices owned by government officials. The EU, Canada, and Belgium have since done the same, while the UK is currently weighing a similar move.
Just a week ago, the Senate introduced a new bipartisan bill that would allow the country to impose a nationwide ban like this.
What did TikTok say?
ByteDance has confirmed CFIUS recently requested that Chinese owners sell their shares. The company has also expressed that it’s disappointed in the outcome.
TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said that “If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access.”
She added that the way to address the problem would be to impose transparent, US-based protection of user data in the country.
The company has already made efforts to move its US-based data to what it refers to as Project Texas. The cornerstone of the plan is a new TikTok subsidiary in the US that would report to CFIUS and not to ByteDance.
However, the new stance from the government effectively kills its chances of winning approval for it.
TikTok has made a similar push in Europe this month, calling it Project Clover.
ByteDance also rejected all espionage accusations and stated that it has invested over $1.5 billion to secure its user data.
A potential sale of TikTok would require permission from Chinese officials who are hostile to the idea of a foreign country acquiring its first global social media success.
What’s next if TikTok gets banned?
A nationwide TikTok ban would likely be met with a legal challenge from ByteDance and a backlash from the app’s users.
Over 138 million Americans use TikTok, and the video-sharing app is extremely popular among young people. One-sixth of teenagers say they’re constantly on the platform.
American youth is also less worried about a foreign government collecting their data. They trust TikTok as much as they trust other platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.
App users have already expressed their concerns about the potential ban. Comment sections on some TikTok videos are already seeing debates over how likely it is and how it would happen.
More people have also been interested in what other apps they could use in case the government blocks TikTok. Google trends shows a significant rise in “alternative to TikTok” queries in the past day.
A general TikTok ban looks more likely than ever, especially with Chinese officials not being in favor of a sale.
More news is definitely to come in the coming days. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify before the US congress on March 23.
He’ll discuss the company’s privacy and data security practices, and its relationship with the Chinese regime.
Talks of global espionage have escalated in recent weeks after the US shut down a Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina.
The Republican chair of the committee, Michael McCaul, has since called TikTok “spy balloon in your phone.”
If the bill passes, Americans may have to use in-app region change methods if they want to keep using TikTok within the country.