TikTok bans: What could they mean for you?

As US lawmakers move to force TikTok’s Chinese parent company to sell the app or face a ban, here is a look at other global curbs.

Lawmakers are acting because of mounting concerns that the Chinese-owned app could be used to influence users and pass users' personal data to Beijing, allegations that both China and ByteDance deny. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers approved draft legislation on March 5 to give Chinese tech company ByteDance about six months to divest video-sharing app TikTok or face a US ban.

Driven by national security concerns, lawmakers have agreed to fast-track a vote on the legislation in the most significant move against the app since former president Donald Trump unsuccessfully tried to ban it in 2020.

This is my message to TikTok: break up with the Chinese Communist Party or lose access to your American users,” Mike Gallagher, the Republican chair of the House of Representatives’ select China committee, said after the bill was agreed.

“America’s foremost adversary has no business controlling a dominant media platform in the United States.”

If ByteDance does not divest TikTok within 165 days, the bill would make it unlawful for app stores run by Apple, Google and others to offer TikTok or provide web hosting services to apps controlled by ByteDance. But the bill would not authorise any enforcement against individual users of an affected app.

Lawmakers are acting because of mounting concerns that the Chinese-owned app could be used to influence users and pass users’ personal data to Beijing, allegations that both China and ByteDance deny.

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

Where else has TikTok been banned?

The US, Canada, Britain and several European Union 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 in November 2022. 

US policymakers are trying to ‘be tough on China’ by acting exactly like the Chinese government. Banning an entire app used by millions of people, especially young people, LGBTQ folks, and people of colouris classic state-backed Internet censorship.

Evan Greer, director of tech, Fight for the Future

Nepal also banned the app, with authorities saying it was disrupting “social harmony” and goodwill in the country.

More than 1,600 TikTok-related cyber crime cases have been registered in the last four years in the Himalayan nation.

Taiwan, which prohibits a wide range of Chinese business operations, has banned the app on state-owned devices and in December 2022 opened an investigation into TikTok over suspected illegal operations on the island.

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, according to a report published in January 2023 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 US 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 had 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.

“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.

TikTok has previously said that “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 US, 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 clamour about cybersecurity from the EU, there has been no word of reassurance or concern for ordinary users.”

What does the proposed US ban mean for users?

The American Civil Liberties Union called the proposed legislation unconstitutional, saying lawmakers were “once again attempting to trade our First Amendment rights for cheap political points during an election year.”

In May 2023, Montana became the first US state to try and ban TikTok to protect residents from alleged intelligence gathering by China.

But in November, a judge blocked the ban, saying it violated users’ free speech rights.

Evan Greer, director of tech nonprofit Fight for the Future, also said banning TikTok would be censorious.

“US policymakers are trying to ‘be tough on China‘ by acting exactly like the Chinese government,” she said in a statement.

“Banning an entire app used by millions of people, especially young people, LGBTQ folks, and people of colouris classic state-backed Internet censorship.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.

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