Should the US ban TikTok?

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In the latest development of the deteriorating Sino-American relationship, President Donald Trump has vowed to ban the hugely popular, Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok, over security fears.

On the 7th August, Trump passed two executive orders preventing US companies from doing business with TikTok – a law that came after the military were forbidden to use the app last year. The future of TikTok’s presence across the pond has yet to be fully decided; at the moment the app boasts 85 million monthly active users in the states alone. Either a total ban is on the cards – like in India, where the app was outlawed back in April – or the company will be sold to a US firm (an acquisition that Microsoft are currently vying for), which would help mitigate, but not eradicate, reservations over data insecurity.

This news has unsurprisingly, considering the app’s widespread popularity, polarised opinions – as demonstrated by the recent surge in TikTok’s American users utilising the platform to testify their love for the site. Whether the app should be banned or not is a debate as murky as the laws, or lack thereof, governing the use of international social media sites and the data they collect in one’s country. To help you wade through these uncharted waters, here are some of the key reasons for and against banning TikTok.

Perhaps the sincerest threat is TikTok’s authority over its users’ data. Its parent company – ByteDance, which operates in China – is required by law to hand over any data to the Chinese government, and keep it a secret should they request it. In other words, the US would have no ownership over the 160 million Americans with TikTok accounts. Any company operating in China must abide to these rules, including Apple and Google, and it’s almost impossible for them to resist officials’ request for information.

But what data would they have access to? TikTok’s privacy policy reveals that users can share their age, email address, phone number, location, payment information, contacts, IP address, model of phone, metadata connected to images and videos and more. This might sound intimidating, but WIRED explains that these credentials are not dissimilar to Google and Facebook’s terms.

Some argue that seeing as TikTok’s audience are predominantly teenagers and young adults, data collection wouldn’t necessarily be a political disaster for the US, which is one of Trump’s main concerns. However, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, in an interview for Slate magazine, contends: “We know that the Russian government sought to meddle in the 2016 elections by manipulating social media”, so if China had total access to how Americans interact with information and what makes certain videos go viral, that would make the US “very vulnerable to Chinese disinformation, especially as we’re coming up to our elections”.

So, controlling political narratives is a very real fear for the Trump administration, and all governments around the world. However, it’s still unclear how effective selling TikTok to an American company would be in mitigating this threat. Some of TikTok’s employees would still work in China and would therefore be subject to the same laws governing information requests. Just as before, data would continue to be stored, and the US doesn’t have a sweeping data privacy law at present.

On the other side of the debate, there are a range of issues that suggest banning TikTok could be detrimental to the public. Looking to India reveals some of these potential repercussions. Before it was prohibited, 44% of India’s population used TikTok. Once it was removed, the country’s top 100 influencers on the social site collectively lost $15 million, but the less obvious social and political impacts were also considered disastrous for India. Nitish Pahwa reported that: “In a highly stratified society”, TikTok had managed to “cut across castes, faiths and other gulfs, all so Indians could watch one another’s lip-syncs”. The app also became an important political tool “to mobilise for protests and other forms of social education and organisation”, and “rural women who previously lacked access to any big platform found some measure of fame, fun and newfound confidence in the face of oppressive societies”.

A similar outcome could be on the horizon for the US’s TikTok users. Although America is much less formally “segregated” when compared to India’s caste system (more than half of India’s population live in poverty compared to roughly 11.8% of Americans), it’s true that US citizens from lower socio-economic backgrounds – who rely on the app for much-needed income, a platform for creativity, expression and connection – will lose out the most.

Finally, some argue that banning TikTok would be a hypocritical move from the US. For a country that prides itself on “free speech”, banning a social media platform would be a form of censorship. In reasoning his decision, Trump stated: “Additional steps must be taken to deal with the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain”. But surely there are many instances where data has been harvested illegally on the US’s own soil to meddle in elections, such as Cambridge Analytica. Yet Facebook, an American company, walks away scot-free, as omnipresent as ever. Where’s the censorship of Facebook’s powers here? If Trump does ban TikTok, logic would follow that the same laws be applied to the US’s native social media giants, and that’s without even touching on the government’s lack of censoring of hate speech that is still pervasive among those sites.

Whatever happens, if TikTok is commercially banned from the US, this could hopefully initiate much-needed talks on data privacy and security requirements for apps, social media and tech giants, which at the moment remains unknown territory.

Francesca Lister-Fell

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