Will the TikTok Ban Kill the Internet?
Western governments go sicko mode on TikTok. What gives? And what will the repercussions be?
There have been rumblings for the past few years about the potential dangers of TikTok, which seem to have reached a fever pitch. The hysteria is mostly due to the current or proposed TikTok bans both for government employees and the general public in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and many European Union countries. Some college campuses have banned it from their Wi-Fi networks, and Montana has banned the use of TikTok completely.
Why the panic about TikTok and not, say, Snapchat or Facebook? The answer is simple: TikTok is owned and operated by the Chinese company ByteDance, and the company’s handling of sensitive user data has been questioned. It’s not an entirely unfounded concern. Chinese law is such that the government can demand sensitive personal data from its internet companies. On the flip side, however, neither the U.S. government nor other Western governments have produced strong evidence of widespread security breaches that threaten national or global security due to the popular social media app.
Will the Internet survive a TikTok ban? Yes, it will. But the implications of banning a social media platform of the magnitude of TikTok are wide and far-reaching. It opens the door for bans of other websites and apps, and that level of censorship is troublesome and will change the internet as we know it. A ban would also come under fire as anti-First Amendment, and it would without question face legal pushback.
Pro Tip: When using any app or website where you store personal data, make sure to use the strongest password possible. Also use two-factor authentication on TikTok and all other apps when it’s available.
In February 2023, the U.S. federal government required the app’s deletion on personal government-issued phones within 30 days. There are numerous bills circulating Congress aimed at limiting the use of technology created abroad. One bipartisan bill, called the Restrict Act, has particularly broad support, including from President Joe Biden, and it’s likely to pass. It’s not new though. Former president Donald Trump attempted to ban downloads of TikTok in 2020, but ultimately backed off due to lawsuits brought against the U.S. Commerce Department.
TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, testified in front of Congress and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for five hours in March 2023 to plead TikTok’s case that it does not pose a major security threat. Chew explained that TikTok planned to store U.S. user data with American software giant Oracle in an attempt to assuage fears, with a largely lukewarm response. Chew also released a video on TikTok assuring users that the platform is safe, which many hailed as a genius PR move.
Banning TikTok is significant from a business and data perspective, but it also has potentially vast cultural significance. We all watched events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the devastating earthquakes that shook Turkey and Syria from the perspective of people on the ground. With more than a billion users globally, the ability to be exposed to creators from all around the world and all walks of life has made the world more accessible in a positive way.
In countries where TikTok bans are already in place, such as Iran, younger generations have learned ways around it, such as using a robust VPN service to disguise where they are located. Think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment1 would even argue that recent large-scale protests in Iran are in part due to younger generations’ exposure to other cultures and different perspectives via social media apps like Instagram and TikTok.
FYI: If you’re wondering if TikTok is safe from a data perspective, it seems that aside from the potential scams that can happen on any social platform, TikTok is as secure as any other social media app, according to our research at Security.org.
The Mechanics of a Ban
How would a TikTok ban actually work? It’s not like you can force people to delete it from their personal devices. Essentially TikTok would die a slow death. If it was banned in the U.S., then the largest app providers (think Apple and Google) would have to pull it from their app stores, and no further updates to the platform would be available. It would become buggy and eventually unusable, people would stop using it, and it would peter out.
Ironically, that scenario may open up the users to more privacy trouble. Without platform security updates, they may be in more peril from a personal data perspective.
Did You Know? Deleting the TikTok app from your phone does not delete your data from the app. To delete your data you need to actually delete your TikTok account from the Settings and Privacy section. It can take up to 30 days for TikTok to delete your data.
Some would argue that the best outcome from all the TikTok hullabaloo is that controlling interest in the company be sold to the U.S. or another Western nation. From a security perspective, however, many people, including top brass at TikTok, think the truly best-case scenario would be for a comprehensive data security plan to be enacted by the U.S.
“The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, U.S.-based protection of U.S. user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing,” TikTok’s Maureen Shanahan said in a March 2023 press statement.2
We all once shared one phone that was nailed to the kitchen wall. We are adaptive! If you’re old enough to remember Myspace, you’ll recall that it was the thing in the early aughts. If you’re not old enough to remember, then it proves that life moves on, no matter how important something may seem at the time.
In all seriousness, a TikTok ban would definitely change the internet — and the free speech implications are problematic. Will a TikTok ban kill the internet? No. Alter it? Yes.
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. (2023, Jan 2). Iran’s Uprising and the TikTok Generation.
NBC News. (2023, Mar 16). Biden admin tells TikTok's Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the app or face a possible U.S. ban.
The Washington Post. (2022, Sept 27). States are moving to penalize ‘cyber-flashing'.