Once again, US Congress considers banning TikTok

The online platform TikTok is once again in the news, this time the target of proposed US legislation.

One of the most popular and innovative social-media outlets, the Chinese-originated and Chinese-controlled app's infinite-scrolling videos have been imitated by Facebook and YouTube, and 170 million Americans use it, many of them under 30.

So why is Congress once more considering legislation that would either force ByteDance, the Chinese parent company, to divest itself of the United States division of TikTok, or else face a total ban of the app?

The ostensible reason is that despite TikTok's public protestations to the contrary, it appears that user data garnered by the US division of TikTok can be accessed by its masters in China, as I noted in a December 2022 blog post.

Whether ByteDance actually exploits this capability is not clear, but adding that to the fact that TikTok has engaged in a certain amount of censorship on subjects sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party's sensibilities provides enough rationale to consider legislative action.

In a recent essay in Time, reporter Scott Nover describes the bill that the US House of Representatives passed on March 13. If passed by the Senate and signed by President Biden, it would present TikTok with a choice: either totally divest the US division so that it is completely independent of the rest of the Chinese-based organisation, or face a total ban on selling and using the app in the US.

Although the bill theoretically gives the firm a choice, several sources say that the true intent is to enact a ban, not just to force divestiture.

As the only major social media app not developed in the US, TikTok excites the envy of Facebook and YouTube, and US-based social-media firms would be more than happy to see a major competitor eat the dust, so they could rush in with their replacement apps and fill the void.

Suicide threats

Never having used TikTok, I have only a dim idea of how essential it must seem to some teenagers. In a clumsy attempt to prevent the bill's passage, TikTok urged its users to phone their congressperson to protest the bill. Representatives were flooded with phone calls, some of which carried the caller's intent to commit suicide if TikTok were banned.

Many of the callers were below voting age and presumably unable to vote against anyone who favours the ban, but the campaign apparently backfired, as it demonstrated TikTok's overwhelming influence with its users, more than a principled regard for free speech on their part.

Nover, for his part, thinks that even if the bill becomes law, it will quickly become entangled in court cases, and the record for similar bans at the state level in the courts is not good.

Former President Trump's attempt to ban TikTok by executive action was thwarted by a court, which said there were other ways to achieve the same ends. So, just passing Federal legislation that would effectively ban TikTok won't necessarily mean an uptick in teen suicides, although that possibility can't be discounted.

The US government has decidedly mixed motives in its move to ban TikTok, as it would be a big favour to US-based social media firms. To that extent, the proposed law smells of crony capitalism, which uses government influence to suppress competition.

There are those who take the view that as long as users get better, cheaper services, it doesn't matter whether those services come from a multitude of small firms or from one giant firm. In other words, bigness isn't a sin, just incompetence or exploitation. That is an economic debate for another day, but it can't be ignored in the mix of motives that gave rise to the proposed TikTok ban.


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It's still a theoretical possibility that TikTok would actually divest itself of its US division, but as I said in previous blogs, such things can be mainly on paper rather than in reality.

One thinks of the breakup of Ma Bell, which cut the nationwide giant phone company into regional Baby Bells. But a few years after the telecommunications landscape opened up to competition, AT&T found few obstacles on its way to reuniting itself, and continues to be a major player in that field today.


Another problem with the proposed bill is that we don't have a smoking gun. No one has come up with hard evidence that China is definitely exploiting its ability to suck data on its US users into Beijing for nefarious purposes. But the Chinese are very skilful at concealing their espionage activities and their consequences — that is what good spies do.

To give a completely undocumented but likely example I'm personally familiar with, a few years ago, a student employee of mine wanted to get a circuit board design he had developed turned into an actual circuit board. This is done by sending a digital file to a circuit-board-fab company, which etches and drills the board and sends it back to you.

He looked around to find various prices from different vendors. An outfit in Colorado wanted $50, another one here in Texas wanted $40 or along there — and a place based in China offered a three-day turnaround for something ridiculously cheap, like $12.

I let him use the Chinese $12 vendor, but not without wondering whether that firm and others like it were deeply subsidised by the Chinese government for the purposes of obtaining the raw circuit-board files from thousands of US firms, all without sending a single spy to the US. Maybe all this is a fantasy of mine, but I don't think so. It was all perfectly legal and probably very effective for the Chinese, too.

To my mind, the best outcome of the anti-TikTok legislation would be divestiture rather than a total ban. If the federal government shuts down a social media app with 170 million US users, that is truly a heavy hand placed on First Amendment rights of ordinary citizens to express their opinions. But even if the ban is attempted, the courts may well have something to say about the matter, so we will just have to stay tuned.

Do you think limiting TikTok is a prudent move for the United States? Leave a comment below.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.

Image: Pexels


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  • Michael Cook
    followed this page 2024-04-03 21:26:04 +1100
  • Frank Daley
    commented 2024-03-30 15:36:08 +1100
    Hey Martin Fitzgerald, there is nothing to wonder on that topic as the CEO of the Anti Defamation League (ADL), which is a euphemism for the powerful Pro-Israel lobby group that controls legions of politicians across the Western world via their financial “donations”, has been outed via a leaked phone call in which he specifically calls out Tik Tok and the problem it has created for ensuring its pro-Israel narrative faces no opposing voices.

    A quick Internet search will find the leaked phone call, such as this one https://www.reddit.com/r/Sino/comments/1bcswuv/ceo_of_adl_accidentally_makes_tiktok_even_more/
  • Martin Fitzgerald
    I wonder has banning TikTok anything to do with stopping the information about what the IDF is doing in Gaza from being disseminated.
  • Karl D. Stephan
    published this page in The Latest 2024-03-22 12:52:04 +1100