TikTok is the app in the U.S. right now. There’s a good chance you use it yourself. (Perhaps you just broke away from a binge to come read this article.) But the app’s fate, in the U.S. at least, is uncertain: Lawmakers seem poised, if not ravenous, to either force a sale of the app to an American company, or to ban it altogether. The question is: What happens if they do?
Why does the U.S. government want to ban TikTok?
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As much as those of us who love the platform might not want to hear it, there are legitimate national security concerns when it comes to TikTok—namely how the parent company, ByteDance, handles U.S. data. There are a lot of us Americans using the app: 150 million active users in the U.S., according to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew. Like many popular social media apps, TikTok takes a lot of information from us, from contacts, to browsing history, to activity across other apps and websites. We all know our data is harvested by these companies; however, ByteDance is a Chinese-based company, which complicates the user-privacy situation.
The company admitted in December that employees obtained inappropriate data from U.S. journalists, in an attempt to discover the sources of internal leaks. Those employees accessed the IP addresses of the journalists, as well as data of people close to those journalists, in an attempt to discover whether those journalists were in the proximity of any ByteDance employees. Creepy stuff.
While ByteDance subsequently fired the employees involved, the issue highlighted the Chinese-based company’s ability to access sensitive data from U.S. users. Under Chinese law, the government also has the right to demand that information from companies like ByteDance if there are national security implications. It’s easy to see how that data could be abused. There are even fears the government could direct ByteDance to influence the type of content delivered to Americans, delivering everything from misinformation to propaganda.
While these concerns are valid, Congress didn’t make themselves look all that good at their big TikTok hearing. Many on the committee treated the hearing as more of a media show rather than an opportunity to investigate the truth about how TikTok uses (or abuses) U.S. users’ data. In their questioning and grandstanding, some lawmakers revealed how woefully ignorant they are when it comes to technology. When “Does TikTok access the home wifi network” is the gotcha question from a U.S. representative, you know you’re in trouble:
These clips are the ones that are currently going viral on the internet, especially among young people, who see the government’s actions here both as a result of its own ignorance, as well as a fear of the platform itself. TikTok might be popular with Americans, but it’s immensely popular with teenagers and young adults, and they see a potential ban as an attack on a platform lawmakers don’t understand and have little control over. The genuine concerns that were raised, such as whether TikTok sells its user data to third parties, were undermined by moments like this:
Haven’t we been here before?
Yes! The Trump administration attempted to ban TikTok via executive order back in 2020 for similar concerns. That order was struck down in court, but the uncertainty of the situation led TikTok to develop “Project Texas,” a plan to divest any TikTok operations that deal with U.S. user data into an independent organization that doesn’t report to ByteDance. The Project Texas transition has been ongoing since July 2022, including hosting all U.S. TikTok user data in the American-based Oracle Cloud.
While TikTok wants Project Texas to assuage fears of data misuse, it doesn’t seem to be working, as U.S. lawmakers are hellbent on banning the app, or forcing a sale to a U.S. company.
What will happen if the US bans TikTok?
In short, nothing at first, assuming you’re one of the hundreds of millions of Americans with TikTok on your smartphone. If the ban actually goes through, and wins any of the objections from courts that are bound to pop up, Apple and Google will remove it from their app stores immediately. That means you won’t be able to download the app if you don’t have it on your device post-ban.
However, neither Google nor Apple can delete an app from your phone on their end. If you have TikTok on your device already, it’ll stay there, even if the government nukes it. In theory, you’ll still be able to access the service, albeit now with a limited audience (of hundreds of millions of Americans). However, it’s possible Congress would force ISPs to block access to TikTok, which would effectively kill the platform whether or not you had it on your device in advance. That’s what the Indian government did when it banned TikTok, so no one can access the app as-is.
The real issue, though, comes over time. Because the app would no longer exist on the App Store and Play Store, it wouldn’t receive future software updates. Your particular TikTok app will be frozen in time, forever staying on the last version available before the ban went into effect. That’s an issue for two reasons: First, TikTok’s developers wouldn’t be able to issue security updates to the app to address any vulnerabilities discovered going forward. That poses a major security risk: If bad actors were to figure out an exploit through a TikTok vulnerability, you’d leave yourself open to attack, and because TikTok is banned in this scenario, the company couldn’t do anything to help you.
The larger existential issue for TikTok, however, is the block on software updates following a potential ban. Not only would the company not be able to issue patches for security vulnerabilities, they would no longer be able to send general updates to keep the app working on your iPhone or Android device. Eventually, the app would lose compatibility with the latest versions of iOS and Android, and would cease to function. R.I.P. TikTok.
There are potential workarounds here. VPNs would become the go-to way for Americans to access TikTok, as the tech makes it appear as if your connection is coming from another country. But that’s likely a few extra steps too many for most of the American TikTok users out there. As such, a ban of any kind would effectively kill the app’s reach for most Americans.
In short, it’s a big ol’ mess
There are so many different facets to this story. Creators who built their brands and businesses on the app are now scared of what happens in a post-TikTok world; there’s a potential political backlash to the ban, as young people already detest the government for going after their favorite social media platforms; and American social media companies are hungry for a ban, too, since their stock prices would likely skyrocket. Instagram and YouTube didn’t spend all that time copying TikTok’s video features for nothing.
However, it also speaks to a lack of interest from our government in serious solutions to the problems TikTok presents. Banning TikTok would stop Americans from giving their data away to ByteDance, but it wouldn’t do anything to prevent the insane amount of data leaked to every other company Americans use, including other software owned by Chinese companies. As Even Greer, director of Fight for the Future, put it: “If policy makers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should advocate for a basic privacy law that bans all companies from collecting so much sensitive data about us in the first place, rather than engaging in what amounts to xenophobic showboating that does exactly nothing to protect anyone.”