In the fast-paced digital landscape, the popular video-sharing platform TikTok has found itself at the centre of a contentious debate. A new bill is currently running through the US legislature which would force TikTok to sell its US business or face a ban. Advocates of the bill argue that TikTok poses a national security threat. TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance. US lawmakers have expressed concern over their links to the Chinese government and the potential for the app to be used for espionage. US President Donald Trump introduced a similar measure in 2020 but the plans fell through. While proponents argue for safeguarding national interests, sceptics view these actions as mere political manoeuvres to appear tough on China. Furthermore, there are concerns that such laws could be used to target any platform that the incumbent government takes issue with, potentially infringing on civil liberties.  This article will briefly explore the debate around the new bill.

TikTok’s Security Risks

TikTok’s meteoric rise to prominence has not been without its share of controversies, chief among them being the apprehensions surrounding data security. TikTok boasts 1 billion users globally and 150 million US users. As a Chinese-owned company, TikTok’s parent entity, ByteDance, falls under the jurisdiction of China’s stringent data laws, which mandate cooperation with state intelligence agencies. This raises concerns about the potential exploitation of user data for nefarious purposes, including espionage and surveillance. Despite TikTok’s denial that it would provide US user data to the Chinese government, leaked information showed instances where user data had been accessed in China.. 

We must note, these concerns are not new. Although TikTok has always denied accusations that it poses a security risk, numerous countries have taken precautionary measures against it. Canada, Belgium, Denmark, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK, and the U.S. have banned the app from government devices. India already banned the app outright, again due to security concerns.These concerns have been echoed by those advocating for this bill in the US government.

TikTok’s data collection and algorithms have also sparked concerns. The social media app’s algorithm-driven content recommendation system presents a unique challenge. By leveraging vast troves of user data, including browsing history, location information, device identifiers and more, TikTok’s algorithm tailors content to individual users’ preferences. While this personalised experience enhances user engagement, it also raises red flags regarding the platform’s ability to influence public opinion and disseminate propaganda, a tactic often associated with state-sponsored disinformation campaigns. US lawmakers has cited this as an issue as they fear the app has become rife with disinformation. Furthermore, the scale of data it collects on users has also led security experts to raise the alarm on the potential threat to individual users’ data privacy on TikTok. Certain data collection practices, including the potential accessing clipboard data without user consent, have further fuelled apprehensions about its commitment to user privacy.

Issues with the Bill

One of the main criticisms of the new bill is that it is a stepping stone to authoritarian censorship. Many critics say banning such a prominent app like TikTok is a form of censorship and is contrary to the principles of freedom of expression . Much of the opposition to TikTok is that US lawmakers have limited influence over the content promoted or minimised. Hence, lawmakers such as Ted Cruz, for example, even cited the prevalence of “anti-Israel” content on TikTok as a point of criticism. Banning TikTok partly because it hosts content contrary to US government policy, is exactly what the US has condemned other adversaries for. Additionally, many, including Elon Musk, have said that this bill could be used to ban any platform which the incumbent government dislikes under the guise of national security concerns. Advocates of free speech have rallied against the bill and are worried about the risk of government encroachment on civil liberties. 

Despite the legitimate concerns surrounding TikTok’s security implications, the push for its ban or forced divestiture by the US government is not devoid of political motivations. Against the backdrop of escalating tensions between the United States and China, the targeting of Chinese-owned tech companies like TikTok serves as a strategic manoeuvre to assert dominance in the global tech landscape and curb China’s growing influence. Furthermore, the timing of these actions raises eyebrows, with some critics alleging ulterior motives. The Trump administration’s aggressive stance on TikTok gained momentum in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, portraying it as a symbol of tough-on-China leadership. Biden and the wider House of Representatives have adopted the same approach as near the 2024 election. 

Conclusion

Taking all into account, the debate surrounding the US government’s stance on TikTok encapsulates the confluence of national security imperatives and geopolitical manoeuvring. While legitimate concerns exist regarding TikTok’s potential security risks, the politicisation of the issue raises doubts about the sincerity of the motives driving these actions. Furthermore, the much of the opposition is driven by the prominence of an app potentially linked to an adversarial government rather than by sound analysis of the risks of TikTok’s algorithms and software. As policymakers grapple with the complexities of safeguarding national interests in an increasingly digital world, striking a balance between security imperatives and individual freedoms remains paramount. Ultimately, the resolution of the TikTok dilemma will shape the contours of future engagements between tech giants and nation-states, underscoring the need for a nuanced approach that prioritises both security and freedoms.