Soon after Texas university students returned to classes in January, they received a note from the IT department informing them of a new rule: they could no longer access TikTok, the popular video app, on university Wi-Fi.
Students had mixed feelings. “There are legitimate security concerns with the app,” said Adam Nguyen, a 19-year-old computer science major at the University of Texas at Austin.
“But people should be able to make their own decisions – this sets a dangerous precedent with the university deciding what sorts of things you can do on the network,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The move comes as part of a swirl of efforts to limit the use of TikTok – which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance – in the United States, over fears that U.S. user data could be passed on to China’s government.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee plans to hold a vote this month on a bill aimed at blocking the use of TikTok in the United States.
“There are real concerns about data gathering by Chinese companies,” said Aynne Kokas, a professor of the University of Virginia, and author of the book Trafficking Data: How China Is Winning the Battle for Digital Sovereignty .
“But the idea that this problem goes away if you ban TikTok, that’s just not true.”
For three years, TikTok – which has more than 100 million U.S. users – has been seeking to assure Washington that the personal data of U.S. citizens cannot be accessed and its content cannot be manipulated by China’s Communist Party or anyone else under Beijing’s influence.
TikTok did not respond to a request for comment, but has said in past statements that bans are based on “unfounded falsehoods about TikTok”.
‘DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS’
TikTok has been the most downloaded app in the United States since 2021, according to data from Sensor Tower, a data analytics company.
In December last year President Joe Biden signed a law banning TikTok from government devices and more than half of U.S. states have passed similar restrictions, with college campuses and even some elementary schools following suit.
Sarah Kreps, director at the Tech Policy Institute at Cornell University, said the ban should be seen within the context of a more-than-decades long effort by the United States to limit the spread of Chinese technology.
“It’s part of this larger government effort to slow down Chinese progress and impede their ability to engage in surveillance of Americans,” she said, pointing to restrictions on imports on hardware by China’s tech giant Huawei and telecom equipment maker ZTE going back over a decade.
U.S. courts blocked a move by the Trump administration in 2020 to ban the Chinese messaging app WeChat from Apple and Google’s app stores, citing free speech concerns.
Kreps said the concerns over surveillance are credible, pointing to a report from Forbes magazine in December that found ByteDance had used the TikTok app to track multiple journalists to discover the source of leaks.
Kreps said she understood the need to limit TikTok’s access to government devices, but efforts to ban the app more broadly were likely motivated by political and commercial concerns aimed at slowing TikTok’s spread, rather than banning it outright, she added.
“Right now we are looking at a patchwork approach – it’s not very effective,” she said. “It feels like death by a thousand cuts.”
Students can easily bypass the bans by using their own data – and government workers are still able to access TikTok from personal devices.
Kokas of the University of Virginia said the focus on TikTok underscores the U.S. failure to pass comprehensive data protection laws that could address data privacy issues across multiple platforms.
“It’s a destabilizing effort to target an individual company, rather than a serious effort to carefully examine and address the extractive and exploitative U.S. tech environment when it comes to data,” she said.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat pushing to ban TikTok from operating in the United States, pointed to Huawei, which has faced bans on its products from the United States and other countries, as an example of a global response to security concerns.
“When you have … 140 million Americans’ user data and algorithms ultimately, potentially controlled by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), that’s a problem,” Krishnamoorthi said in a phone interview.
The legislation Rep. Krishnamoorthi and Wisconsin’s Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher introduced in the House does single out TikTok and Bytedance.
But it also leaves room for restrictions on social media companies housed in countries of “concern” which include China, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela, according to the bill text.
The bans have ignited a broader debate over internet sovereignty and the trade-offs countries face for seeking to counter China’s influence in the technology space.
Daniel Lyons of Boston College Law School said the college campus bans and broader bans on TikTok do raise concerns over free speech, which is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“A flat ban on using TikTok at all infringes (on) a lot more speech than necessary to limit the flow of sensitive information to China,” he said.
A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council did not provide comment on legislation to ban TikTok from operating in the United States and security issues surrounding the app.
In addition to bills pending in Congress, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has been in talks with TikTok for more than two years on a path forward after ordering ByteDance to divest TikTok in 2020 over concerns that user data could be passed onto the Chinese government.
In 2019, CFIUS forced Chinese gaming company Kunlun to divest from gay dating app Grindr, citing data privacy concerns.
TikTok has floated a plan that would have U.S. tech giant Oracle store data of the app’s U.S. users and a U.S. security division oversee data protection and content moderation decisions.
Krishnamoorthi stressed that policymakers must ensure the debate avoids getting steered toward xenophobia or racism. For example, anti-Asian rhetoric ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic, including expressions like “China virus” that were frequently used by former President Donald Trump.
“That being said, we have to be cognizant that the CCP is a real threat,” he said. “In light of that, we have to counter those threats.”
Aubrey Flores, a 20-year-old sophomore at Texas A&M University who enjoys watching TikTok videos, still welcomed the ban.
“If we have to make sacrifices due to bans or restrictions as consumers for our own safety then we should accept that,” she said.
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