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TikTok bans on state, federal government devices preempt national debate


The political move du jour in the US these days: banning TikTok on government devices.

In the past three months alone, more than half of American governors have issued orders outlawing the social media app on government-issued devices. In a rare show of bipartisan unity, Congress voted unanimously in December to prohibit the use of TikTok on federal gadgets. Now, even some municipalities and local boards are getting into the action.

In each case, political leaders cite the same concerns with TikTok. They argue the app’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, will be forever kept to China’s authoritarian, anti-American government, an untenable relationship that threatens US national security and cultural values.

For elected officials, it all makes for good headlines. Politicians get to look like they’re standing up to America’s top geopolitical threat, without actually doing anything that negatively impacts the day-to-day lives of constituents.

But here’s what you don’t see many of them doing: calling for a national ban on all TikTok usage.

As political leaders stumble over themselves to institute the government device quarterly measure, a much larger question about the app’s broader viability in the US hangs in the balance. And while burblings about a national ban are growing ever-so-slightly louder, it’s telling that the same officials howling about TikTok’s nefarious influence are conspicuously quiet when it comes to supporting a policy that might tick off millions of voters.

The debate over TikTok’s place in the American digital landscape largely boils down to questions of trust in ByteDance. The company claims that the Chinese government cannot access American users’ data or tinker with the app’s recommendation algorithms. To assume fears about undue Chinese influence, ByteDance has proposed housing all American user data onto servers owned and operated in the US by Oracle, as well as giving Oracle and outside inspectors access to TikTok source code.

ByteDance skeptics, however, argue that any faith in the company and the interventionist Chinese government is misguided. Multiple media reports, including blockbuster BuzzFeed and Forbes stories authored by Emily Baker-White, have validated concerns about ByteDance failing to follow through on promises of protecting user data and staving off undue influence.

As it stands, the government device prohibitions are little more than political theater. Government employees rarely use TikTok in the course of official business, and efforts to restrict access to TikTok through government-provided wireless internet—including on public school campuses populated by the youth-oriented app’s prime demographic—are easily circumvented by switching to cellular internet service .

The more consequential debate worth having is whether TikTok should have any place in the American digital landscape.

So far, that conversation has been mostly confined to backroom dealings between ByteDance and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS. The sides have spent two-plus years haggling over an agreement that would allow ByteDance to continue operating in the US under stricter regulations designed to protect American interests. If they do not reach an agreement, ByteDance could be forced to dive or shut down its US operations.

As the New York Times reported Thursday, building off multiple other media reports in recent weeks, TikTok officials are growing increasingly impatient with a lack of communication from CFIUS about the status of negotiations. The impasse follows a Politico report in December that CFIUS faces conflicting demands from the national security community, which supports divestiture, and the Treasury Department, which is wary about the legality of forcing a sale.

Meanwhile, federal legislators and state governors huffing and puffing about TikTok’s threat are mostly avoiding the difficult question of the app’s future.

To date, only a few political leaders have taken a clear stance against ByteDance that calls for divestiture or an outright prohibition. Four members of Congress—Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Representatives Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.)—have introduced legislation seeking to effectively ban TikTok on American soil. US Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) also has signaled his support for similar legislation.

Politicians staying mum on a national ban are likely engaging in smart politics. Polling on a national TikTok ban is limited, and available data suggests support is mixed. Drastic action against TikTok certainly carries political risk with younger voters given Pew Research Center data illustrating their devotion to TikTok (about two-thirds of teens use the app) and slightly more favorable views of China than older Americans.

“TikTok is hugely popular with young people, and the last time a wider ban was floated by Donald Trump in 2020, it didn’t go over well with young people, though evidence and skepticism have grown since then,” Vox reporter Christian Paz wrote in Dec.

For all parties involved, the most politically expedient resolution involves ByteDance and CFIUS reaching a mutually beneficial agreement that doesn’t materially disrupt the TikTok experience for American users. For that to happen, though, ByteDance and the Biden administration will eventually need to meet somewhere in the middle.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions to Data Sheet? Drop me a line here.

Jacob Carpenter


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