At least half a dozen states have recently enacted bans on the use of TikTok by state employees and now some federal lawmakers are hoping to ban it nationwide. But why?
TikTok, which has exploded in popularity in recent years, is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company that moved its headquarters to Singapore in 2020. The platform allows users to scroll through endless videos, similar to Vine, a platform launched by Twitter in 2013 that allowed users to scroll through a seemingly endless supply of six-second-long videos.
TikTok has also been targeted by Republicans who say the Chinese government could access its user data like browsing history and location. U.S. armed forces have even prohibited the app on military devices.
Late last month, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (R) enacted a ban on TikTok across state government-issued devices, citing its ties to China.
“The Chinese Communist Party uses information that it gathers on TikTok to manipulate the American people, and they gather data off the devices that access the platform,” Noem said in a statement. The Chinese Communist Party does hold widespread control over businesses in China.
On Thursday, after the bans were announced, TikTok shared it would be “making improvements to how we’re organized internally to further promote a safe and secure platform for our community.” This includes creating a team to “work on compliance, safety strategies, and moderation for content involving U.S. users’ private data.”
“We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the bandwagon to enact policies based on unfounded, politically charged falsehoods about TikTok,” spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told Nexstar in an emailed statement. “It is unfortunate that the many state agencies, offices, and universities on TikTok in those states will no longer be able to use it to build communities and connect with constituents.”
TikTok previously said in a statement that ByteDance is a private company and that “TikTok Inc., which offers the TikTok service in the United States, is a U.S. company bound by U.S. laws.” There is even a separate, but similar, app for China, according to ByteDance’s website: Douyin.
TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas, based in Los Angeles, said during a September Senate hearing the company protects all data of American users and that Chinese government officials have no access to it.
A security team based in the U.S. decides who can access U.S. user data from China, CNN reports, but TikTok has acknowledged that China-based employees can access European user data. TikTok’s U.S.-based moderation team is led out of California, and the company says it stores all U.S. user data in the U.S. with a backup in Singapore.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would prohibit the use of TikTok in the U.S. This follows a bill introduced in September that would ban China-based employees from accessing U.S. user data and another introduced last year to ban the use of TikTok by federal agencies.
TikTok’s data collection “can be used for traditional espionage operations,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said earlier this month. A commissioner of the FCC, Brendan Carr, recently said the federal government should ban TikTok because there isn’t a way “in which you could come up with sufficient protection on the data that you could have sufficient confidence that it’s not finding its way back into the hands of the [Chinese Communist Party].”
Director of National Security Avril Haines has also warned parents to be concerned about their children’s use of TikTok. Last month, the Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) called TikTok an “enormous threat.”
In 2020, then President Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok but later gave ByteDance the opportunity to split off its U.S. TikTok business or sell it to an American-based company. Despite conversations with Microsoft, Oracle, and Walmart, TikTok was never sold off, Forbes explains. The ban ultimately never took effect, and President Joe Biden later replaced Trump’s blanket-style orders against Chinese tech companies with a narrower approach.
U.S. officials and the company are now in talks over a possible agreement that would resolve American security concerns.
In addition to cybersecurity concerns, TikTok, like other social media platforms, has been accused of perpetuating toxic diet culture among teens and young adults.
TikTok isn’t only receiving scrutiny – for some, TikTok has been as educational as it has been entertaining. According to the Associated Press, some students have used TikTok to learn about race, gender, and sexuality, topics some teachers have been reluctant to discuss amid scrutiny from conservatives.
TikTok has more than 100 million users in the U.S. and is listed among the most popular apps in both the Google Play and Apple App Store.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.