Recently, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have proposed a ban on TikTok, the popular video social media app, for the alleged threat it poses to America, including children, adults, and national security. They argue that since the company’s parent is Chinese-owned ByteDance, the Chinese government effectively controls the platform and the data on it. Undoubtedly, Chinese government interference is a potential risk for any Chinese company. But rather than pursuing blanket bans based on where a company is domiciled—an idea that could hurt U.S. tech companies in the global market if others adopted similar policies—policymakers should instead take concrete steps to better protect users and address data concerns.
Even before this week’s proposed legislative ban on TikTok, a number of policymakers have taken aim at the social network. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified at a House Homeland Security hearing that the app creates “national security concerns.” Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-CA) recently voiced concerns about the ability of “hostile powers to potentially control social media networks.” And former president Donald Trump notably signed an executive order that would have effectively banned TikTok near the end of his term in office, an order that President Biden eventually rescinded and replaced with a narrower, and ongoing, national security review.
TikTok has rapidly become one of the most popular apps in the United States, with over 86 million users. The app is owned by parent company ByteDance, a company based in China, and TikTok itself has acknowledged in a letter to Congress this year that under certain circumstances employees in China have accessed data about American users in the past. Chinese law states that companies must give the Chinese government access to their data in the case of national security concerns and the public interest. Policymakers worry that this type of data sharing with the Chinese government puts U.S. national security interests at risk and could allow the Chinese government unfettered access to Americans’ personal data on TikTok. Some policymakers contend that this poses a particular threat to children’s data, but have yet to clarify what they believe the Chinese government is actually doing with this data. In addition, many worry that ByteDance, in response to the Chinese government, could influence the content that appears for TikTok users.
But each of these underlying concerns about TikTok can be better addressed through targeted policies rather than banning the app.
First, to address the concern that TikTok will secretly send data about Americans back to China, Congress should pass federal data privacy legislation that explicitly requires companies to disclose all data sharing and hold them accountable for the accuracy of those disclosures. For example, the American Data Privacy and Protection Act would require companies to disclose whether they transfer, store, or process data in China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea. This law would not prevent companies from sending data to China, but it would ensure they would have to disclose this information publicly. And TikTok’s U.S.-based personnel would be legally responsible for knowingly making any false claims.
Second, to address concerns about government requests for consumer data or attempts by governments to manipulate or censor content, Congress should create mandatory transparency requirements so that social media companies must regularly produce transparency reports documenting any such requests. Here again, the goal would be to eliminate any doubt about what demands governments might be making of companies. Regular reporting would ensure that governments’ requests cannot go undetected.
Finally, to address concerns about access to sensitive consumer data, policymakers should encourage more social media platforms to adopt end-to-end encryption for direct messages between users. Using end-to-end encryption would eliminate the risk that a third party, including the platform itself, could access private messages and would help keep consumer data out of the hands of bad actors.
Nevertheless, some policymakers seem bent on enacting some kind of action before the end of this congressional term. On Wednesday, the Senate passed a measure banning TikTok from being downloaded on any federal device. The legislation, first introduced by Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), aligns with a myriad of states that have taken similar action. But targeting one specific application will do little to improve national security across the board. Rather than targeting TikTok, policymakers should create a list of apps banned on federal devices with transparent and objective criteria.
Banning an app on the basis of its foreign ownership sets a bad precedent for the United States. Other countries could use it to justify their own bans on U.S. apps and online services under the guise of similar privacy and national security concerns. The result would be a loss of global market share for American companies and fragment Internet services, hurting both businesses and consumers.
Moreover, it would be premature for Congress to enact a ban on TikTok given that the Biden administration has been actively working with the company to address some of the main concerns relating to the app’s data practices and address national security issues. In a reversal of an August 2020 executive order effectively banning TikTok signed by Donald Trump, the Biden administration has sought to take a more nuanced approach to evaluating the threat posed by not only TikTok but all social media platforms. At present, the administration aims to keep TikTok operating in the United States without changing its ownership structure but is negotiating to require the company to route U.S. traffic through the U.S. cloud computing company Oracle and allow Oracle to audit TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation models.
Instead of stepping on the ongoing negotiations by the administration, Congress should focus on prioritizing legislation that targets the underlying concerns which are not unique to TikTok. If Congress wants to take a hard line against China, there are plenty of more pressing economic and security issues than TikTok that it could focus on. And if policymakers want to get serious about improving privacy and security, they should take real steps to protect Americans online, rather than impose bans that will hurt American businesses and consumers.