TikTok, a popular social media platform with over one billion users worldwide, has been under scrutiny by the U.S. government for quite some time. The app's ownership by China's ByteDance has raised concerns about national security risks, censorship, and the potential transfer of personal data of Americans to Beijing. Now, with the possibility of a ban on the horizon, the debate over TikTok's future in the U.S. has become even more heated.
Background of the story
The controversy surrounding TikTok began in 2019 when the U.S. government launched a national security review of the app. The review was prompted by concerns that TikTok could be used by the Chinese government to spy on American citizens or influence political discourse. Due to these concerns, the Trump administration tried to ban TikTok in the U.S. in 2020. However, those efforts were stalled in court on the grounds that such a move infringed guarantees of free speech.
Now, with the Biden administration in place, there are renewed calls for TikTok to be banned or at least heavily regulated. In February 2023, the U.S. government gave state agencies 30 days to delete TikTok from federal devices and systems over data security concerns. While this ban only applies to government devices, some lawmakers are advocating for an outright ban on the app. Cybersecurity and privacy concerns around TikTok are not limited to the U.S. Several countries, including Norway, France, the UK, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Belgium, and Denmark, have already banned TikTok on government-owned devices or cautioned their employees against using the app.
TikTok denies these allegations, stating that it collects the same type of user data as other social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram. Besides, over 60% of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors. Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, testifying at a congressional hearing on 23 March 2023, claimed that the allegations are groundless, since the app protects personal data and prioritizes user safety. “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” said Chew. Because of this, many believe national security concerns are just a cover up and in fact, Zuckerberg is behind the efforts to ban TikTok in the U.S. to eliminate Meta's biggest competitor from the market.
Concerns around the issue
Several legal issues are being discussed in connection with TikTok's future in the U.S. The most important is whether the government has the authority to ban a particular app or platform, since it may interfere with American citizens' right to free speech. Advocates of freedom of expression are predominantly citing the Packingham v. North Carolina case from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017, where the court deemed that even registered sex offenders shall have a right to access the internet and social media, as they are crucial platforms for exchanging ideas in the present-day. On the other hand, while the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and expression, it does not necessarily apply to private companies or their products. The government has broad powers to regulate interstate commerce, and it could argue that TikTok's Chinese ownership poses a national security risk that justifies a ban.
Some experts argue that a ban could simply lead to the emergence of new, potentially even more dangerous, apps or platforms. Others point out that the global nature of the internet means that a ban in one country is unlikely to prevent access to the app altogether. Despite these concerns, proponents of a ban argue that it is necessary to protect national security and prevent potential harm to users.
Is there an alternative to an outright ban?
As an alternative to the drastic measure to ban TikTok completely, the government could seek to regulate the app in different ways. For example, it could require the app to be divested from its Chinese parent company and become an independent US-based entity subject to U.S. laws and regulations. Alternatively, it could require TikTok to implement certain privacy and security measures to protect user data and limit potential national security risks.
Therefore, the debate over TikTok's future in the U.S. is far from over. With concerns about national security, censorship, and privacy still looming, the government and private companies must carefully consider the legal and ethical implications of their actions. Whether through an outright ban or regulatory measures, it is crucial to strike a balance between protecting national security interests and respecting the rights of users to free speech and privacy. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected through technology, it is more important than ever to address these complex issues in a nuanced and thoughtful manner.