The app TikTok has been repeatedly making headlines as governments around the world consider take action against the video platform. The latest threat, from Donald Trump himself, suggests that the app could be banned very soon. It could also be bought by Microsoft or another US corporation.
Mr Trump also signed an executive order giving TikTok 45 days in the United States before it is banned. Such decisions are being made for a number of reasons, including border conflicts with the Indian government and anti-Chinese sentiment from the United States.
Concerns have also been raised about the Chinese government’s approach to data and privacy, both with regards to its own citizens and the potential to collect information from foreign citizens.
The Trump administration is apparently considering a ban on Chinese social media apps, including the popular video app TikTok. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mentioned the possibility on July 7th, saying it was “something we’re looking at” in a Fox News interview with Laura Ingraham — and on July 31st, President Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he planned to personally ban the app using his own authority, instead of potentially forcing its Chinese owner to divest it.
The most intense app bans happen at the network level, blocking any communication between the targeted servers and users in the country. That’s the approach taken by China’s Great Firewall, and it’s how India enforces its recently implemented TikTok ban. (Australia, which is considering a similar ban, would likely take the same approach.) But American law doesn’t have any precedent for blocking software in that way, so it seems unlikely that the White House would be able to follow through on that kind of heavy-handed network censorship.
Pompeo compared the administration’s TikTok plans to its crackdown on Huawei and ZTE, which included locking them out of government contracts. It’s true that TikTok has been banned from many government employees’ work phones, including members of the US military, and some lawmakers are pushing for an even broader restriction. But Huawei and ZTE sold components to telecom operators who, in turn, worked with government agencies. TikTok is a consumer app, so that’s a much less serious punishment. “Huawei and ZTE are used by enterprises,” says Samm Sacks, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. “TikTok is used by so many people in the US.”
A more likely target is the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which oversees mergers and investments involving non-US companies. CFIUS opened a national security investigation into TikTok last year, citing similar concerns to Pompeo, and there’s enough evidence against the company to build a plausible case.
TikTok is a subsidiary of Beijing-based company ByteDance, and critics have raised several issues around both its overall privacy practices and its potential ties to the Chinese government. Leaked moderation guidelines discouraged criticism of events like the Tiananmen Square protests. Although TikTok says it stores American user data in the US, there’s a persistent concern that it could pass information to Chinese state agencies. (TikTok has repeatedly denied that it shares information this way, and it says the moderation guidelines are no longer used.) “The Chinese government has a history of gaining control over nodes in the information system,” Freedom House analyst Sarah Cook told The Verge in an interview last year.
If CFIUS decides Chinese ownership is a problem, the council could cause a lot of trouble for TikTok. In recent years, CFIUS has rejected some high-profile merger and acquisition plans — including a Chinese company’s purchase of gay hookup app Grindr, which it nixed on national security grounds. The council could make TikTok restructure in a way that further separates its US presence from its Chinese one, or even make ByteDance sell-off Musical.ly, a Chinese company whose American app helped TikTok launch in the US. It’s still not precisely a “ban,” though — and it certainly doesn’t generalize to all Chinese social media apps.
“For nearly a year, we have sought to engage with the US government in good faith to provide a constructive solution to the concerns that have been expressed,” TikTok’s blog post reads. “What we encountered instead was that the administration paid no attention to facts, dictated terms of an agreement without going through standard legal processes, and tried to insert itself into negotiations between private businesses.”
TikTok is preparing a lawsuit to challenge the executive order, according to NPR. The lawsuit will argue Trump’s action is unconstitutional because it didn’t give TikTok the opportunity to respond, NPR said. TikTok declined to comment on the report. Separately, TikTok employees are raising funds for a possible lawsuit to challenge the order on the grounds it would deprive them of their livelihoods. The employees have signed up prominent internet lawyer Mike Godwin to represent them.