This story is part of Generation China, CNET’s series exploring the nation’s technological ambition.
TikTok, an app known for quirky short videos, is facing political heat because of its ties to China.
The Trump Campaign reportedly began running ads on Facebook on Friday asking people who see them to sign a petition calling for a ban of the app, ramping President Donald Trump’s pressure on the app. The ad references the app’s ability to access material stored on phone clipboards, which the app’s developer has said was designed to prevent spam and is being removed.
Owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based tech company, TikTok’s popularity has exploded over the past year. It’s gotten a new boost from the coronavirus pandemic, drawing in users looking to escape the boredom of quarantine. The app has been downloaded more than 2 billion times, according to research firm Sensor Tower, with 623 million coming during the first half of this year. India is its largest market, followed by Brazil and the US. (TikTok isn’t available in China, where ByteDance distributes a domestic version called Douyin.)
Now TikTok’s growth is under fire because governments are concerned the Chinese government might have sway over the app. Citing national security concerns, India banned TikTok last week. The US and Australia are also considering blocking the app. The US Army and Navy have banned service members from downloading the app to government-issued phones.
Other organizations have also become wary of the app. Wells Fargo barred the app from corporate-owned devices, while the Democratic and Republican national committees have warned staffers about it.
Here’s what you need to know about the political backlash against TikTok:
Why does the Trump administration want to ban TikTok?
Politicians are worried the Chinese government could use the video app to spy on US citizens. In an interview with Fox News aired on July 6, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that users who downloaded the app are putting “private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.” Trump cited a different reason for a potential TikTok ban: punishing China for its response to the coronavirus. Asked about Pompeo’s remarks in an interview with Gray Television, Trump confirmed the US is considering a TikTok ban. “It’s a big business,” Trump said. “Look, what happened with China with this virus, what they’ve done to this country and to the entire world is disgraceful.”
Trump and Pompeo’s remarks come after TikTok users and K-pop fans said they helped spoil attendance at a June presidential rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma by reserving thousands of tickets online with no attention of attending. Trump supporters have a visible presence on TikTok so banning the app could also work against the president during an election year.
The White House didn’t have additional comment. The US Department of State declined to provide any additional information.
On Sunday, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro told Fox Business that TikTok and messaging app WeChat “are the biggest forms of censorship on the Chinese mainland” and to expect “strong action on that.” He didn’t specify if a ban was coming.
It’s unclear how likely a ban is, but analysts say one wouldn’t be easy to implement.
TikTok’s access to US users’ data may well be worth investigating. There will always be concerns when apps from foreign companies collect large amounts of user data, said tech policy expert Betsy Cooper, director of the Aspen Policy Hub.
But, she added, “It’s unclear how much effort the administration will put into actually investigating the seriousness of the specific security concerns with the app versus using this as a threat for broader geopolitical leverage.”
How has TikTok responded to a possible ban?
Concerns about privacy and national security aren’t new to TikTok, and it’s tried to push back against political scrutiny. Last year, TikTok said in a blog post that all US user data is stored in the US with a backup in Singapore. TikTok also said its data centers are outside China and none of its data is subject to Chinese law.
“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the US,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement addressing Pompeo’s comments. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
How would a ban work?
The US government would have to find a legally sound reason to request that Apple and Google pull TikTok from their app stores, according to analysts. And the companies could put up a fight.
“The tech community will be very hesitant to go along with this app ban,” said Wayne Lam, an independent technology analyst. “It sets a precedent for the government to ban other apps or even for other global apps to be inaccessible to the US market.”
Even if the app were banned, users can install apps on Android devices without downloading them from the Google Play Store, said Carolina Milanesi, a tech analyst at Creative Strategies.
“I don’t know at that point how you police that,” Milanesi said.
The US Commerce Department could also put TikTok on its “entity” list, restricting the company’s access to US technology, she said. Chinese tech company Huawei is already on that list. Adding TikTok to the list would mean the app wouldn’t be allowed on Google’s or Apple’s store, she said.
Lam said that the US government could block traffic to TikTok, but that is “unlikely to succeed given our legal systems.”
Governments that have banned TikTok haven’t been able to fully block access. Last week, India banned TikTok and 58 other Chinese apps, saying in a statement that the services are “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order.” The move came after at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed during a clash with Chinese troops along a disputed border in the Himalayas.
The Indian Express reported that TikTok has been removed from the Google and Apple app stores, preventing new users from downloading the app. But users who already had TikTok on their phones were still able to access the service. Some TikTok users in India also started seeing alerts that said TikTok is working with the government to comply with its order.
Google declined to comment. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Can the government ban a specific app?
The administration has limited authority to ban outright any specific piece of software, like an app. But it could potentially lobby Congress to enact legislation that targets TikTok, said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group.
Currently, Opsahl said, “There is no law that would authorize the federal government to ban ordinary American from using an app.”
Other countries do ban specific apps, and some have the ability to block them from working on the internet at the network level. This would be extremely difficult to accomplish in the US, said Arturo Filasto, a co-founder of the Open Observatory of Network Interference, who analyzes internet censorship in countries around the world. “There is no central place where you can go to and implement a unified filtering strategy, like there is in places like China and Iran,” Filasto said.
Instead, the government would have to order all ISPs in the country to block the app. Even if they all complied with the order, there’s no guarantee that TikTok wouldn’t find a way to get around those blocking efforts, Filasto said.
Sounds like a ban would prompt challenges by TikTok and the app stores. What would they likely do?
Any scenario would create opportunities for legal challenges. A law or executive order that targets TikTok could spur a challenge under the First Amendment, Opsahl said. The challenges would be based on previous court rulings that show “code is speech,” Opsahl said. Such rulings include Bernstein v. DOJ, in which the court found a computer scientist had the First Amendment right to publish an encryption algorithm.
Additionally, Apple and Google could push back on any orders to remove TikTok from their app stores, challenging a potential executive order or any fines charged by the Commerce Department after placing TikTok on the entity list.
Is there anything short of a ban the government can do to ruin TikTok’s day?
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US is already investigating TikTok for national security concerns. The investigation, first reported in November 2019 and run out of the Commerce Department, could end up requiring changes to TikTok’s substantial operations inside the US.
One requirement could be selling off Musical.ly, a US company ByteDance acquired in 2017 for $800 million that was rebranded as TikTok. The acquisition helped TikTok gain traction with US teens.
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