As 2022 came to a close, the U.S. Congress banned Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok from federal government devices, its most aggressive action to date against the social media giant. Despite the app’s innocent appearance—its most popular videos include popstars chewing gum and chocolate-sculpted giraffes—TikTok’s Chinese ownership and rapidly growing reach have ignited national security concerns among some government officials.
What does TikTok have to do with national security?
Policymakers fear that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, could share the data it collects on its one hundred million U.S. users with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Another worry is that the CCP could use the video-sharing service to spread disinformation, misinformation, or propaganda. While ByteDance denies that it manipulates the algorithm that controls what U.S. users see, outside analyses have shown that the app has at times censored content critical of the CCP, including videos about Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur ethnic group and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
What has the U.S. government done about it?
In December 2022, Congress banned TikTok on all devices owned by the federal government, expanding on similar, agency-level restrictions that have been in place for several years. The legislation is the latest in a string of attempts to deal with the perceived national security threat.
Scrutiny began in 2019 with an investigation, still ongoing, by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a body that reviews foreign investment transactions. (ByteDance merged with the video-sharing app Musical.ly in 2018, a move that brought it under CFIUS jurisdiction.) CFIUS has blocked a handful of high-level acquisitions by Chinese companies, but any action against TikTok, which has been valued at over $300 billion, would be by far the largest transaction reversed by CFIUS.
In 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order mandating the sale of TikTok to a U.S. company within forty-five days. But the order was held up in court, and Trump left office before a final ruling was issued. In 2021, President Joe Biden revoked that executive order and signed his own calling for better data privacy controls on social media apps, though the order did not mention TikTok by name. Biden has also launched a security review of apps that could be exploited by foreign adversaries and ordered the Commerce Department to develop a strategy to address the issue, but neither directive has produced specific recommendations yet. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a bill that would ban TikTok altogether.
Are government efforts likely to allay the concerns?
As TikTok’s negotiations with CFIUS proceed behind closed doors, experts say there are three possible outcomes:
A deal with CFIUS. TikTok could reach an agreement that sees it comply with a laundry list of CFIUS conditions, such as government reporting, compliance, and auditing requirements and a restriction on access to U.S. data. TikTok has already agreed to move U.S. user data to servers in Texas that are governed by U.S. software giant Oracle, but “physical location does not matter if the data can still be accessed from China,” CFR’s Adam Segal told Buzzfeed in June.
Divestment. CFIUS could also mandate the sale of TikTok to a U.S. company, much like President Trump tried to do by executive order. But officials worry that any divestment mandate would also be blocked in court, and the sale would have to be approved by Chinese officials. China has made clear that the app’s proprietary algorithm is subject to the country’s strict export controls.
A full ban. With a deal and divestment both facing headwinds, Congress could move forward with a total U.S. ban of the app, and the Biden administration would have no choice but to go along with it, Segal tells CFR.
What do critics of the government's TikTok policy say?
TikTok has consistently denied that it censors content or shares data with the CCP, despite evidence that Chinese managers have access to U.S. user data.
Other critics say the app collects no more user data than U.S. social media giants, and that China pursues other avenues of cyber espionage that are more harmful than what it can achieve through TikTok. Experts point out that China can still buy U.S. user data on the open market through data brokers, or intermediaries who buy and sell data. Many of these brokers are U.S. firms. A recent study by Georgia Tech’s Internet Governance Project found that TikTok does not censor U.S. content, and that its data collection is no more of a threat [PDF] than any other social media platform’s.
“If you say that your goal is to protect the data of American citizens both from privacy violations and from collection from a foreign potential adversary, then [going after TikTok] is not the most efficient, effective way to do it,” Segal says.
Have other countries considered a TikTok ban?
Several governments have restricted access or are considering it. Amid a wider crackdown on social media companies’ data policies, the European Commission is pursuing multiple investigations into TikTok’s compliance with European Union data privacy laws. India has banned TikTok outright, alongside nearly three hundred other Chinese apps, reportedly due to national security concerns. And in some Muslim-majority countries, including Indonesia and Bangladesh, TikTok has been banned for its potential to spread “inappropriate” content, while many Western social media platforms are allowed but heavily moderated. Meanwhile, even China does not permit the U.S. version of TikTok—instead Douyin, another ByteDance-owned app that is subject to standard Chinese social media censorship, dominates social media video-sharing.