TikTok bans: What could they mean for you?

A woman who used to post over a dozen videos on video-sharing app TikTok, and her daughter are seen in a mobile phone's screen as they make a video that they said will upload on an Indian app, after India banned dozens of Chinese apps including TikTok following a border clash between the two nations, inside their house in Mumbai, India, July 1, 2020. REUTERS/Hemanshi Kamani
explainer

A woman who used to post over a dozen videos on video-sharing app TikTok, and her daughter are seen in a mobile phone's screen as they make a video that they said will upload on an Indian app, after India banned dozens of Chinese apps including TikTok following a border clash between the two nations, inside their house in Mumbai, India, July 1, 2020. REUTERS/Hemanshi Kamani

What’s the context?

The United States, Canada and the European Parliament have banned TikTok from federal devices due to security risks

U.S. lawmakers are moving forward with legislation "to protect Americans" using TikTok from China, the House of Representatives speaker Kevin McCarthy has said, amid hot debate over calls for a ban on the video platform.

There are mounting concerns in the U.S. and other western nations that the Chinese-owned app could be used to influence users and pass users' personal data to Beijing, allegations that both China and TikTok owner ByteDance deny. 

The White House backed legislation introduced earlier this month that would give new powers to restrict or ban TikTok and other foreign-based technologies if they pose national security threats.

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However, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among some Democratic lawmakers opposing a ban, saying such a move would be "unprecedented".

Here's where TikTok is facing restrictions - and what tech experts say about calls for bans:

Where has TikTok been banned? 

The U.S., Canada, Britain and several EU bodies have all imposed bans solely on government devices, but other countries have gone further.

India banned TikTok in 2020. Pakistan has issued four temporary bans of TikTok, with the most recent ending last November. 

Taiwan, which prohibits a wide range of Chinese business operations on the island, has banned the app on state-owned devices.

Does TikTok pose a national security threat?

TikTok is only of espionage value when used on the devices of people connected to national security functions, found a report published in January by Georgia Tech's Internet Governance Project.

But other digital experts have pushed back on the report's conclusion.

It is naive to think there is enough separation for a commercially-motivated native enterprise to not effectively be a tool of the Chinese state," said Bryson Bort, chief executive of U.S. security firm Scythe.

"There is interest in direct relationships with national security, but it looks like from my optic that they are building a database to correlate information around any person," he told Context in emailed comments.

A report from Forbes magazine in December found that ByteDance had used the TikTok app to track multiple journalists to discover the source of leaks.

"It was a real through the looking glass moment that changed all our interactions with the company - and raised suspicions," said Chris Stokel-Walker, a British journalist and author of TikTok Boom.

However, he questioned the motivations behind the bans.

A woman who used to post over a dozen videos on video-sharing app TikTok, makes a video on her miniature cooking with her daughter that she will upload on an Indian app, after India banned dozens of Chinese apps including TikTok following a border clash between the two nations, inside their house in Mumbai, India, July 1, 2020. REUTERS/Hemanshi Kamani

A woman who used to post over a dozen videos on video-sharing app TikTok, makes a video on her miniature cooking with her daughter that she will upload on an Indian app, after India banned dozens of Chinese apps including TikTok following a border clash between the two nations, inside their house in Mumbai, India, July 1, 2020. REUTERS/Hemanshi Kamani

A woman who used to post over a dozen videos on video-sharing app TikTok, makes a video on her miniature cooking with her daughter that she will upload on an Indian app, after India banned dozens of Chinese apps including TikTok following a border clash between the two nations, inside their house in Mumbai, India, July 1, 2020. REUTERS/Hemanshi Kamani

"The reason it's being banned from official devices in different countries is because of concerns about China handling Western users' data, but nobody has yet proven it," he said.

A TikTok spokesperson said "these bans are based on basic misinformation about our company, and we are readily available to meet with officials to set the record straight about our ownership structure and our commitment to privacy and data security."

"We share a common goal with governments that are concerned about user privacy, but these bans are misguided and do nothing to further privacy or security."

Will other countries ban TikTok?

Other countries that have close security relations with the United States have not decided to implement TikTok bans.

Australia, which is part of the "Five Eyes" security alliance that includes Canada, New Zealand and the U.S., said that it has not received advice from its security agencies to ban the app.

Britain, which is also a member of the network, has not banned the app despite lobbying from policymakers.

However, that does not preclude bans in other countries, Walker said.

"It's the closest we can get to unofficial sanctions against a tech company, and countries won't want to feel left out," he said.

"What that means for everyday users is probably not much - it's notable that with all the clamor about cybersecurity from the EU, there has been no word of reassurance or concern for ordinary users."

What does this mean for users?

It is unlikely the U.S. will ban TikTok for ordinary citizens because it would be a violation of the First Amendment which protects the right to speak freely, tech experts say.

"In a purported attempt to protect the data of U.S. persons ... this legislation will instead limit Americans' political discussion, artistic expression, free exchange of ideas," the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a letter to lawmakers last month.

Evan Greer, director of tech nonprofit Fight for the Future, also said such a move would be censorious.

"U.S. policymakers are trying to 'be tough on China' by acting exactly like the Chinese government," she said.

"Banning an entire app used by millions of people, especially young people, LGBTQ folks, and people of color, is classic state-backed Internet censorship." 

This article was updated on March 28, 2023, to include latest updates on proposed legislation in the U.S.


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