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Should TikTok Be Banned?

“Your platform should be banned,” said Congresswoman Cathy Rodgers, setting the stage for the marathon five-hour-long Congressional hearing (“America May Be a Step Closer”). On March 23, 2023, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew faced questioning from Congress members, with intelligence and legislative bodies from the Biden administration expressing fears that the Chinese government might weaponize American app-usage data. This situation was not the first time TikTok found itself in such a predicament (Perrigo). In 2020, then-President of the United States, Donald Trump, utilized the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to issue an executive order that required TikTok to stop operations in the United States because of national security concerns (“United States Pursues Regulatory Actions”). In response, TikTok filed a lawsuit against the American courts and secured a preliminary injunction against the executive order (“United States Pursues Regulatory Actions”). Despite granting TikTok a brief respite, the hearing once again brought the platform’s relationship with the Chinese government into question. 

"TikTok" by Solen Feyissa is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 .

        Additionally, the White House had indicated that if TikTok could not disentangle itself from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, the U.S. government might ban the app. Ultimately, “TikTok is working with American regulators on a framework where Oracle holds American users’ data,” a project known as “Project Texas” (“Who is Afraid of TikTok?”). While an immediate ban on TikTok may not be feasible, we must prioritize the significance of the data privacy issues for the safety of American citizens and the nation and scrutinize TikTok’s close ties with the Chinese government.

        First, we will examine the specific challenges that TikTok presents in terms of data privacy and security, issues that have attracted significant attention from both policymakers and the public. As reported in “United States Pursues Regulatory Actions,” FBI Director Christopher Wray, in July 2020, accused China of being responsible for several significant data breaches in the U.S. over the past decade. These breaches affected various institutions, including Equifax and Anthem, as well as certain departments of the U.S. government. As TikTok, a subsidiary of China’s ByteDance company, collects an extensive volume of personal and behavioral data from its American users, it is imperative to promptly ensure their data privacy and security. As noted by Quinn, the granting of permissions to engineers based in Beijing, China, to repeatedly access and control the data of TikTok’s U.S. users contradicts what the company had previously claimed. Although the “Project Texas” plan claims that it will transfer the data of U.S. users to Oracle servers in the United States, it does not explicitly assure that the data will not be accessible to Chinese engineers, failing to completely assuage concerns about data access permissions. This evidence indicates that TikTok’s U.S. users’ data could potentially breach privacy and security, substantiating the claim that a critical examination of TikTok’s data handling practices is indeed necessary.

        In addition to data privacy issues, legislators are deeply concerned about TikTok’s close ties with the Chinese government. During the congressional hearing, TikTok CEO Shou deliberately avoided direct questions regarding TikTok’s relationship with its parent company ByteDance, which owns both TikTok and the Chinese version, Douyin (Showers). “According to the Wall Street Journal, hosts a police cybersecurity office in one of ByteDance’s Beijing offices” (Quinn). Contrary to our conventional understanding, the Chinese government grants itself the right to demand any data it desires from domestic companies (“Who is Afraid of TikTok?”). Quinn also mentioned that within ByteDance, there exists a dedicated committee for the Chinese Communist Party. This internal group organizes study sessions for employees to learn about party doctrines. At these events, employees are seen in photographs raising the party’s flag, identifiable by its hammer-and-sickle symbol (Quinn). In fact, ByteDance’s collaboration with Chinese security agencies is far from being merely theoretical. The company reportedly has agreements with Chinese law enforcement agencies in an effort to spread positive narratives about the Communist Party and downplay the “genocide in Xinjiang Province” committed by the government (Clark; Quinn). These connections potentially make TikTok a tool for Chinese propaganda and international political influence, affirming the need for a comprehensive examination of TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese government.

        From a broader perspective, the potential threat TikTok poses to national security is too significant to be ignored. FBI Director Christopher Wray stated that TikTok had raised concerns about national security. The algorithm of this application could be utilized to disseminate misinformation to the United States, while user data could be used for espionage activities (Marijolovic). It is worth noting that in 2019, TikTok blocked a video by a teenage girl that highlighted the Chinese Communist Party’s mass detention of Uighurs, content that was undesired by the Chinese government. TikTok’s executives first admitted that their content moderation algorithms had specific rules to censor content related to the Uighurs, only to retract this admission later (Quinn). This incident evidences TikTok’s role as a vehicle for censorship that aligns with the Chinese government’s propagandistic ideological interests. Moreover, four years ago, the Chinese government ordered the parent company of TikTok to shut down another popular application because it was not interested in tolerating subversive jokes on the platform (“Who is Afraid of TikTok?”). Such evidence underscores that TikTok can serve as a platform for the Chinese government to disseminate misinformation, implement political propaganda, and strengthen censorship systems, further highlighting the necessity of taking action against such risks.

        Contrarily, some scholars offer an alternative viewpoint. Clausius argues that banning foreign applications like TikTok would manifest a loss of citizens’ freedom of speech and create a new censorship system. Notably, in the context of TikTok, suppressing technologies that promote freedom of thought and the dissemination of ideas leads to reduced interaction among countries. Despite these arguments, Clausius’s viewpoint may not consider the full implications of TikTok’s operations. As Quinn outlines in his article, TikTok has already implemented a censorship regime, particularly for content that could adversely affect the Chinese government. Therefore, allowing TikTok to operate in the U.S. might paradoxically lead to increased content censorship rather than a reduction. In the same vein, though technology may foster freedom of thought and the dissemination of ideas, it can also serve as a tool for misinformation and propaganda. As FBI Director Wray mentioned, TikTok allegedly uses its algorithm to push misleading content to its users, posing a considerable security risk. Moreover, the most crucial point is that while banning foreign applications like TikTok may impinge upon certain forms of free speech, concerns of national security and data privacy must also be taken into account. “Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said in a statement, ‘Recent revelations surrounding the depth of TikTok’s ties to the CCP highlight the urgency of protecting Americans from these risks before it is too late’” (“Pros & Cons of Banning”). Consequently, this balance is not an arbitrary strike against free speech but a necessary protection of national security and citizen privacy rights. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) emphasized that it is crucial “protect our nation from the nefarious digital surveillance and influence operations of totalitarian regimes” (“Pros & Cons of Banning”).

        In conclusion, considering the potential threats to national security and data privacy posed by TikTok’s close ties with the Chinese government and its data handling practices, it is crucial for us to prioritize scrutinizing this platform, even if an immediate ban may not be feasible. While “Project Texas” may momentarily alleviate the most pressing concerns of legislators and the U.S. government, we should persistently monitor this issue and seek alternative solutions that can safeguard both user data security and national security. Implementing a total ban on one of the world’s most popular applications, which boasts 3.2 billion users, may take time or even be impossible. In today’s digital age, it is straightforward for an application to access the device location, private data, and other personal information. As individuals increasingly rely on such platforms for information acquisition, social networking, and even day-to-day life, it is vital to be aware of how these platforms protect user information. We must be vigilant about unforeseen consequences while enjoying the efficiency gained from sharing our private information.

References:

“America May Be a Step Closer to Banning TikTok.” The Economist, 23 Mar. 2023, p. NA. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A742730054/AONE?u=lincclin_vcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=b865f951. Accessed 21 July. 2023.

Clark, Evan. “Pompeo Declares Genocide In China’s Xinjiang Province.” WWD: Women’s Wear Daily, Jan. 2021, p. 11. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=bth&AN=148213627&site=ehost-live. Accessed 21 July. 2023.

Clausius, Madison. “The Banning of TikTok, and the Ban of Foreign Software for National Security Purposes.” Washington University Global Studies Law Review, vol. 21, no. 2, spring 2022, pp. 273+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A721999590/AONE?u=lincclin_vcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=0237997c. Accessed 21 July. 2023.

Marijolovic, Kate. “Public Colleges Across the Country Are Banning TikTok on Their Networks. Here’s What That Means.” Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 69, no. 11, 3 Feb. 2023, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=a9h&AN=162280023&site=ehost-live. Accessed 19 July. 2023.

Perrigo, Billy, et al. “The Clock Ticks on TikTok over Security Concerns.” TIME Magazine, vol. 201, no. 13/14, Apr. 2023, p. 10. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=bth&AN=162778543&site=ehost-live. Accessed 19 July. 2023.

“Pros & Cons of Banning Chinese Social Media Apps: National Security Threats versus Free Speech and Commerce.” Congressional Digest, vol. 99, no. 10, Dec. 2020, p. 31. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=shib&db=pwh&AN=147010658&site=ehost-live. Accessed 19 July. 2023.

Quinn, Jimmy. “TikTok’s Byte: The Issue Is Not ‘Data Privacy’; It Is the CCP.” National Review, vol. 74, no. 14, 1 Aug. 2022, pp. 14+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A710602501/AONE?u=lincclin_vcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=8b938f7b. Accessed 21 July. 2023.

Showers, Ken. “The Case Against TikTok.” Security Systems News, vol. 26, no. 5, 2023, pp. 4-4,18. ProQuest, https://www.proquest.com/trade-journals/case-against-tiktok/docview/2811288099/se-2. Accessed 19 July. 2023.

“Who’s Afraid of TikTok? Social Media and Security.” The Economist, 9 July 2022, p. 10(US). Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A709475402/AONE?u=lincclin_vcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=4c6421bb. Accessed 19 July. 2023.

“United States Pursues Regulatory Actions Against TikTok and WeChat Over Data Security Concerns.” American Journal of International Law, vol. 115, no. 1, Jan. 2021, pp. 124+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A655809485/AONE?u=lincclin_vcc&sid=bookmark-AONE&xid=6d115911. Accessed 21 July. 2023.


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