Few platforms have experienced growth comparable to that of TikTok’s since its breakthrough in international markets. In recent years, the video-sharing application has seen its number of users go through the roof, quickly turning into the ultimate spot for Gen-Z and Boomers when bored and looking to doom scroll through countless “GRWM” and “story time” videos. When looking at the hard facts, it becomes clear of how contagious the China-based social networking service has been since its inception. According to American news website Axios, it took TikTok just over five years to reach one billion active users, with only Facebook Messenger having reportedly reached that same benchmark in a shorter span of time as of September 2021.
Despite its increasing popularity, like most social media sites, many have pointed their fingers at Vine’s successor for a slew of different reasons ranging from the dangers and threats some of its trends might pose to its loyal disciples, all the way up to what is being done with the data that is collected by TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. And it’s the latter that is in today’s focus as the US government recently revealed it is considering banning, or at least restricting to some extent, the access of the app from its citizens.
As of right now, a motion has been put forward in order to prevent the exploitation of personal data by foreign states, seeking to protect the information of Americans away from foreign powers. The suggested legislation, endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats, comes mere weeks after Joe Biden’s administration ordered federal institutions and employees to remove TikTok from their smartphones.
“Unlike most social media platforms, TikTok poses a unique concern because Chinese law obligates ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company, to ‘support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work,'” Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado wrote in a letter addressed to tech giants Apple and Google. Strongly suggesting that something must be done in order to harness the app’s influence, his comments were supported by several other members of Congress and government officials, including Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, going as far as comparing TikTok to a “modern-day Trojan horse of the [Chinese Communist Party].”
Although no further information has transpired in regard to how exactly these bans or restrictions will come into place, these sentiments towards TikTok are far from making headlines for the first time as they come after Trump’s initial zeroing down on it during his time as head of state. In August of 2020, amidst the pandemic, the controversial POTUS published an executive order claiming that TikTok could “potentially allow(ing) China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.”
Furthermore, if this move does indeed go ahead, the United States would add itself to a long list of countries and institutions that have already made their stance on the question loud and clear to all. So far, Denmark, Canada, Taiwan, and India, as well as the EU’s top three arms (namely the European Parliament, European Commission, and the Council of Europe), have imposed bans on TikTok on staff devices, officials’ phones, and government-issued mobiles and tablets, blaming cybersecurity issues as the driving force behind the quite-intrusive policy. Only Afghanistan and Pakistan have imposed either permanent or temporary bans on the application over religious and morality problems each respective country believes the app carries.
However, what makes the US proposal so intriguing and special is the fact that it is rooted in an already complex and fraught relationship they entertain with China, which has further deteriorated in recent times, with tensions rising over several key geopolitical flash-points. These include China’s assertive stance on Taiwan, its potential support for Russia in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and the controversy surrounding a Chinese spy balloon. Leading to a growing sense of urgency and a bipartisan focus on addressing these critical national security concerns, the collective efforts to restrict China’s influence have still managed to raise some eyebrows, with many prominent individuals and institutions expressing concerns over freedom of speech and individual liberties.
Can it be relevant for the US’s case or the rest of the countries that have pushed the dial forward in blocking the application from being downloaded, these global restrictions, and the potential one on the way in America, question the balance between national security and personal freedoms, suggesting that they may lead to censorship, surveillance, and other forms of governmental control over forms of expression. However, only time will tell which direction will be taken and what impact it will have on society as a whole.