Will TikTok Actually Get Banned This Time Around? A Look at Some Key Considerations

Is TikTok going to get banned in the U.S. for real this time?

Well, first off, it’s important to get the details straight.

Earlier in the week, a bill proposed by Rep. Mike Gallagher and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, aimed at addressing national security concerns posed by foreign ownership of social media apps, sought to push TikTok owner ByteDance to sell TikTok into American ownership, in order to ensure that U.S. user data is not being shipped back to China, where the C.C.P. can, at least theoretically, access that info and use it as intel for political purpose.

That bill was passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and will now be voted on by the House, then the Senate, before it could be enacted by the President.

Now, data access of this type may not be a major concern for most TikTok users, but as an example, in theory, Chinese Government operatives could access TikTok user data, and could identify government employees, and their kids, and then use that as leverage to try and persuade said users to implement beneficial actions.

That’s why TikTok has already been banned on government devices in virtually every Western nation, but as an example, what if the son/daughter of a high ranking diplomat was posting controversial content, and the C.C.P. had access to such?

With this in mind, bans on Government devices make sense, but really, if you agree with that as a concept, then there are similar risks for many more users by extension, and you would then effectively be agreeing that a full ban of the app makes sense.

Yet, at the same time, there’s nothing to suggest that the Chinese Government has ever directly accessed TikTok data, and TikTok itself maintains that it operates separately, and would not have to share such info at any stage.

But actually, it would.

China’s cybersecurity laws stipulate that Chinese officials can access user logs, messages and comments on social media platforms in order to investigate legal cases as required. The technicalities of such also mean that the C.C.P. can access such in matters of national security, and that’s a fairly broad umbrella, which could effectively validate the monitoring of TikTok user data by any nation that China sees as a potential threat.

Which, given its geopolitical standing, could be a lot of regions.

Interestingly, China’s own data usage laws also stipulate that all sensitive data on Chinese citizens must be stored domestically. So China’s own law includes the same provision that U.S. Senators are now trying to enact for U.S. citizens. Which seems like an acknowledgment of the importance of such from the opposite perspective.

As such, there is likely a case for a ban of TikTok, and U.S. President Joe Biden has said that he will sign off on this latest bill, if it is eventually approved by Congress.

So it does seem like a TikTok ban is closer than ever, and could be more likely than previous times that it’s been proposed. And there are also some other factors in play that could work against the app in this instance.

First off, the U.S. has continued to increase sanctions against China, on various fronts, which has angered Chinese officials.

Earlier this week, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized The White House for its continued restrictions, particularly in technological development. The U.S. has sought to limit China’s access to semiconductors that are being built by U.S. companies, which are critical in the development of AI,  due to concerns that further development of AI could enable military advancements in countries “that may act contrary to U.S. national security interests”. The U.S. is also urging the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea and Japan to limit China’s access to semiconductor technology as well.

That, logically, has led to increased tension between China and the U.S., and it could be that this has now made it more likely that the U.S. will ban TikTok as well, due to the fraying of their relationship.

The U.S. is still opposed to China’s stance on Taiwan, which China views as part of its territory, and America has vowed to support Taiwan in defending itself against threats, while China’s close relationship with Russia, and its support of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, has also put it at odds with Biden and Co.

The latest disagreements on this front could make a TikTok ban more likely, as the U.S. seems less concerned about maintaining the status quo, though both President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping did agree to further collaborative discussions when they met at The White House late last year.

Essentially, more recent tensions could reduce the White House’s concerns about retaliatory sanctions from China if it were to enact a TikTok ban, due to disagreement about AI technology either way.

China-based groups have also repeatedly been detected trying to influence U.S. voters, via mass manipulation programs across social media platforms, and with an election approaching, that could be another consideration in this latest push.

In 2022, for example, Google disrupted over 50,000 instances of a Chinese influence program called “Dragonbridge” across YouTube, Blogger, and AdSense. Meta has also reported ongoing instances of Chinese influence operations, with the company removing almost 5,000 Facebook profiles linked to one such program in Q3 alone last year.

Based on this, it seems logical to assume that a China-based platform could also be facilitating at least some level of similar activity.

At the same time, TikTok may also have shot itself in the foot with its latest campaign to oppose the proposed bill.

TikTok ban

On Thursday, millions of U.S. users were shown this in-stream prompt, which urges them to call their local representative to voice their opposition to the bill.

Trying to quell concerns about the potential influence of your app by using that same influence to drive user action seems to run counter to the aim, and U.S. Senators have reportedly grown even more concerned, and more supportive of the bill as a result.

But TikTok does have a couple of key, influential supporters on its side, even if not for the right reasons.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump, who’s also the likely Republican candidate for the upcoming election, has opposed the proposed ban, because banning TikTok will only give Meta more power.

As per Trump:

“If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Zuckerschmuck will double their business. I don’t want Facebook, who cheated in the last election, doing better. They are a true enemy of the people.”

You may recall that it was Trump who initially proposed a TikTok ban in 2020, though in that instance, Trump claimed that it was in retaliation for China’s failure to contain the spread of COVID-19.

So Trump’s concerns have never really seemed aligned with national security, but more due to punitive measures for perceived slights. As such, Trump’s stance here makes sense, but probably underlines more about his own motivations, as opposed to the concerns at hand.

Unsurprisingly, Elon Musk has shared his support for Trump’s stance.

So, in the end, will TikTok actually get banned?

It does seem like there are more elements at play that could lead to a ban this time around, but it’s hard to imagine that the proposal will actually go through, and get approved by Biden.

A key challenge here is that, in line with Trump, Republican senators are likely to oppose the bill, if it reaches that stage. And given that they hold the balance of power in the House, it seems unlikely that it’ll ultimately make it through to the President’s desk.

But with every fracture in the U.S.-China relationship, a ban does become more likely, and even if it doesn’t happen now, it will still loom as a threat to the app’s existence.

Any further dispute over semiconductor development, trade restrictions, further military action by China in opposition to the U.S., and yes, TikTok will indeed be a casualty of that action.

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