The Biden administration’s TikTok ban threat, explained

Reports that the Biden administration is threatening to ban TikTok, the country’s most downloaded and one of the most used apps, left users suspicious and outraged on Thursday.

Some called it a violation of the First Amendment. Others claimed it was a ploy to help Instagram Reels, Facebook owner Meta’s short video service. Some wondered why TikTok was singled out as a threat considering how many apps steal their users’ personal information.

And some simply appealed to policymakers for compassion. “Please don’t ban TikTok. My teenage son and I are having a blast there,” a Twitter user named Aimee Vance tweetedthen added, “Together…”

Here’s a quick rundown of what’s happening and why, along with some of the pros and cons of the government’s stance.

What does the administration want?

President Biden is attempting to do what President Trump wanted: take TikTok out of the hands of a Chinese company governed by Chinese law. The app is developed by ByteDance, an internet-oriented company founded in China in 2012. Although ByteDance has attracted some global investors, it is still controlled by its Chinese founders.

The Trump administration went so far as to ban TikTok in the United States in 2020. However, that order was blocked by two federal courts, which found the administration had exceeded its powers.

Recently, the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, a group of federal agencies that investigates national security issues raised by such investments, issued an ultimatum to ByteDance: sell TikTok or face a ban in, according to the Wall Street Journal and several other outlets the U.S. A TikTok spokesman said a sale wouldn’t address national security concerns because it wouldn’t impose new restrictions on access to the app’s data.

The CEO of TikTok is scheduled to testify at a congressional hearing next week. The company has proposed storing US users’ data in that country, with technical and operational safeguards aimed at preventing the Chinese government from gaining access. But US officials appear unconvinced that this approach would effectively address their concerns.

Congress, meanwhile, is considering a nationwide ban on apps controlled by the Chinese government. And the federal government, like many national and local governments around the world, has banned TikTok on devices handed out to its employees. Orange County joined their ranks on Tuesday.

Could the government really ban TikTok?

Telecom industry experts say it’s technically possible, but there are problems.

The main players here are the two companies that make the dominant operating systems and app stores for mobile phones, Apple and Google. They could help the government enforce compliance by removing TikTok from their app stores, which would force anyone wanting to install or update the software on their phones to “download” it from another source.

This isn’t hard on an Android phone, but it’s harder on an Apple iPhone — at least for now. Under pressure from US and European governments, Apple will reportedly allow sideloading in the new operating system, which is expected to be released this year.

However, Apple and Google could go further and use their control over the software on their devices to make their phones TikTok incompatible. At the very least, they could force current TikTok users to stick with the current version of the software, whose performance would likely decrease over time.

But there’s a tradeoff to this approach, said Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. Without regular privacy and security updates, the app would be “a great target for people who want to exploit outdated software,” she said, adding, “It creates this other kind of vulnerability that would affect millions of people, including many young people.” “

If the government formally banned TikTok, carriers could potentially block traffic between the company’s servers and US users. But the app’s massive user base might rush to find ways to circumvent obstacles such as B. Using virtual private networks to connect to TikTok across other countries, said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America. “Savvy Chinese can do that, so [it] should be so much easier here,” Calabrese said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if anything came of it.”

Why is TikTok a target?

The Biden administration and members of Congress from both parties have been raising concerns about TikTok for months. Although some lawmakers have complained about the network’s content and its impact on young people, the primary concern is with the network’s owners.

Sara Collins, senior policy counsel for advocacy group Public Knowledge, said the potential for exploitation by China’s authoritarian government makes the app’s privacy threats unique. “If TikTok were magically owned by a US company, we’d be talking about it in the same breath as Google or Facebook,” she said.

TikTok collects a lot of data about its users, including their location and contacts, Collins said. Other companies do the same, largely because federal laws do not protect this information. In fact, Collins said, “There’s an entire industry of data brokers selling this data.”

“It’s hard to separate a TikTok issue when the US has a privacy issue,” she said.

Still, there are fears that the Chinese Communist Party or Chinese government officials will demand access to the data for purposes far less benign than personalizing your video feed. According to Chinese law, ByteDance must release personal data relevant to national security whenever the government requests it.

It is not clear whether and what sensitive data the Beijing government has collected from TikTok. Part of the challenge in evaluating the Biden administration’s stance, Llansó said, is that intelligence agencies have not shared the information underlying their concerns about TikTok — and likely never will.

However, in December, the public got a glimpse of TikTok’s potential for mischief when the company admitted that some of its employees had used the app to track journalists’ location. TikTok said employees follow news leaks from within the company, but for some critics the episode illustrated what the Chinese government could be doing through the platform.

Critics say that China’s government could not only use the data TikTok is already collecting, but could force the app to collect additional information solely for the government’s purposes. And aside from the surveillance threat, they say China could manipulate TikTok’s video feeds or the app itself to further its propaganda.

At a congressional hearing last year, FBI Director Christopher Wray said TikTok raised a number of national security concerns. “They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection from millions of users, or control the recommendation algorithm that could be used to influence operations if it so chooses, or control software on millions of devices, whatever it is.” presents an opportunity to potentially compromise personal devices,” Wray said, according to National Public Radio.

But again, neither China nor TikTok are unique, Llansó said. Anyone who uses social media should assume that multiple governments are trying to influence them, she said – not just authoritarian regimes, but Western democracies as well.

About the Times Utility Journalism Team

This article is from the Times’ Utility Journalism team. Our mission is to be essential to the lives of people in Southern California by publishing information that solves problems, answers questions, and aids in decision making. We serve audiences in and around Los Angeles – including current Times subscribers and diverse communities whose needs have not been met by our coverage in the past.

How can we be useful to you and your community? Email Utility (at) or one of our journalists: Matt Ballinger, Jon Healey, Ada Tseng, Jessica Roy and Karen Garcia. The Biden administration’s TikTok ban threat, explained

Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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