With each passing week, the movement to ban TikTok gains steam. More than half of the states have banned the wildly popular social media app from some or all state-issued devices. The federal government has joined Britain, Canada, and other nations in preventing access to it on official devices. Even the BBC has urged its workers to delete the app from company phones.
Now President Biden is calling on the Chinese-based company to sell itself to an American owner or be shut down completely in the United States. Legislation is kicking around Congress to empower him to do just that. “Your platform should be banned,” Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Republican of Washington, told TikTok’s chief executive in a congressional hearing on Thursday. The Democrats on the panel seemed to agree.
What is motivating this fervid consensus? It turns out the platform that gave us a billion cat videos and spurred aging Boomers to lip-sync in front of bathroom mirrors is also a national security threat.
TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance, is required under Chinese law to make data it sucks up from its 150 million American users available to the Chinese government. FBI Director Christopher Wray and other Biden administration officials have expressed concerns that Beijing could exploit that data to surveil Americans or Chinese dissidents, or to spread targeted propaganda using the platform’s uncanny algorithms for choosing which videos to show users. It might even use TikTok software updates to compromise personal devices, Wray said.
TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, asserted in testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday that the company has not shared American data with the Chinese government and would reject such a request if it were made. He pledged that the company will “firewall” US user data from unauthorized foreign access and allow an independent panel to monitor its algorithms. “TikTok will remain a place for free expression and will not be manipulated by any government,” he told the committee.
That pledge seemed to fall on deaf ears on Thursday. But lost in the rush to ban TikTok is serious evaluation of just how much more of a national security threat it poses than any other social media platform. All of those platforms vacuum up users’ private data, which can include their location, biometric data, and other personal information. That data is often sold to data brokers who peddle it on the open market to anyone with the means to buy it — legitimate companies and malicious governments alike.
Indeed, the FBI recently acknowledged that it has in recent years purchased location data for what Wray described only as “a specific national security project,” according to Wired. He said that project is no longer active, but the precedent is troubling.
And one need only review the 2016 and 2020 elections to recall that foreign entities, mainly Russian, have already used Facebook — an American-based company, by the way — to try to influence American voters.
Is TikTok measurably worse? House members in Thursday’s congressional hearing repeatedly criticized TikTok for disseminating extremist views, misleading health care advice, and material that could encourage eating disorders or suicide among teenagers — all complaints raised repeatedly against Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
Harder to dismiss are fears about China’s authoritarian government, given how effective China has proven at conducting corporate espionage, hacking American databases, tracking Chinese dissidents in the US, and, yes, floating spy balloons over American territory.
But as even some supporters of regulating TikTok acknowledge, fears about TikTok being used as a weapon against Americans remain largely hypothetical. What Congress and the Biden administration need to guard against is overplaying the tough-on-China card that is so popular in both parties these days. Tensions between the world’s two largest economies are already high — is TikTok really the front where they want to play out this battle?
What is also being lost in the debate are the benefits TikTok confers on its millions of users, which now include not just teenagers but also millions of small companies, said Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who focuses on Internet privacy. A ban would violate America’s tradition of free flows of information and do nothing to prevent foreign or domestic companies from accessing data, she said. “Banning TikTok is not the solution.”
The solution, many experts and members of Congress agree, is to strengthen Internet privacy protections to prevent the kind of surveillance and data abuse TikTok critics worry about. But despite bipartisan calls, such legislation has long been stalled in Congress, and few analysts expect it to pass anytime soon.
A more feasible and bipartisan approach has been outlined in legislation sponsored by Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and Senator John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, that would grant the secretary of commerce broad powers to regulate Internet companies from a handful of “adversary” countries, including China, Cuba, Iran, and Russia. Restrictions could include a ban, but lesser restrictions are also on the table.
Importantly, the measure requires the commerce secretary to work with US intelligence agencies to declassify as much information as possible about the alleged threats posed by a foreign company before taking regulatory action. Unlike other bills before Congress, it does not focus on TikTok or even social media platforms in general, but it allows regulation of a wide array of foreign-owned Internet communications and technology companies.
Given that the sale of TikTok to an American buyer seems unrealistic and that efforts TikTok says will wall off its data from the Chinese government have proven unsatisfactory to American authorities, the Warner-Thune bill might be the most reasonable short-term opportunity to tackle a thorny national security problem. The Biden White House has endorsed the measure.
Escalating tensions with China over a social media platform that may — or may not — be a significant national security risk is not necessarily in America’s long-term interest. Internet surveillance and disinformation were huge problems long before TikTok became a household brand — and if it is banned, they will remain with us long after it is gone.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.