The US government has approved an unprecedented ban on the use of TikTok on federal government devices. The restrictions – tucked into a spending bill just days before it was passed by Congress, and signed by Joe Biden on Thursday – add to growing uncertainty about the app’s future in the US amid a crackdown from state and federal lawmakers.
Officials say the ban is necessary due to national security concerns about the China-based owner of the app, ByteDance. But it also leaves many questions unanswered. Here’s what you need to know.
Why did the ban happen?
The US government has banned TikTok on federal government-issued devices due to national security concerns over its China-based parent company, ByteDance. The US fears that the Chinese government may leverage TikTok to access those devices and US user data.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the company was “disappointed” that Congress moved forward with the proposal and that it was “a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests”.
The ban means that, in about two months, federal government employees will be required to remove TikTok from their government-issued devices unless they are using the app for national security or law enforcement activities.
The director of the US Office of Management and Budget and other offices have 60 days to come up with standards and processes for all government employees to remove the app from their phones. Several federal agencies such as the White House and the defense, homeland security and state departments have already banned TikTok, so it won’t change anything for those employees. And earlier this week, Catherine Szpindor, the chief administrator of the House of Representatives, also instructed all staff and lawmakers to delete the app from their devices.
How did we get here?
US security concerns about TikTok have existed for years. Donald Trump first attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban TikTok in 2020, but bipartisan efforts to regulate and rein in use of the app reached a fever pitch in 2022 after news outlets reported ByteDance employees were accessing US TikTok user information.
TikTok is a Trojan horse for the Chinese Communist party Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri
National security concerns were reinforced by warnings from the FBI director, Christopher Wray, that the Chinese government could use the app to gain access to US users’ devices. Several, predominantly Republican-led states – including Texas, South Dakota and Virginia – have also recently banned the use of TikTok on state government-issued devices.
In April, Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri introduced a similar ban to the one now taking effect, calling TikTok a “Trojan horse for the Chinese Communist party”. The measure, the contours of which were largely replicated in the ban that was passed on Friday, was unanimously approved by the Senate earlier in December.
Have other countries taken similar actions against TikTok?
While other countries such as Indonesia have imposed temporary bans on TikTok, the biggest country that continues to prohibit the use of the app is India. India permanently banned TikTok along with more than 50 other Chinese apps after a deadly border dispute with China, citing national security concerns. National bans in other countries have not lasted more than, at most, a few months.
Should we be more worried about TikTok than other apps?
It depends on whom you ask. Several digital privacy and civil advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Fight for the Future say while the potential for China to exploit access to TikTok is indeed concerning, other apps and services offer government entities, including in the US, similar access to user data.
Unless we’re also going to ban Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Uber and Grubhub, this is pointless Evan Greer of Fight for the Future
“Unless we’re also [going to] ban Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Uber and Grubhub, this is pointless,” said the Fight for the Future director, Evan Greer. “Yes, it’s possibly a bit easier for the Chinese government to gain access to data through TikTok than other apps, but there’s just so many ways governments can get data from apps.”
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced bills and applauded efforts to limit the use of TikTok. In addition to Hawley’s bill, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida introduced a bill to ban the company from operating in the US entirely. “This isn’t about creative videos – this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day,” Rubio said in a press release announcing the bipartisan bill.
The Democratic senator Mark Warner of Virginia has also encouraged efforts to ban TikTok on government devices and called for more states to “take action to keep our government technology out of the CCP’s [Chinese Communist party’s] reach”.
Lawmakers in Washington have attempted to limit the use of TikTok, citing national security concerns. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
What are the geopolitical implications of this ban?
The US has ramped up its efforts to address potential national security concerns from China over the last few years, including adding more China-based companies and entities to a commerce department blacklist limiting exports to those firms. The focus on TikTok is part of this larger campaign, but some groups warn that a ban on TikTok would lead to similar moves from China.
Blanket bans on apps based on a company’s foreign ownership will only hurt US businesses in the long run Gillian Diebold of the Center for Data Innovation
“Blanket bans on apps based on a company’s foreign ownership will only hurt US businesses in the long run because countries could seek to block US online services over similar national security concerns,” said Gillian Diebold, a policy analyst at the Center for Data Innovation.
Like other privacy advocates, Diebold said that “policymakers should pursue more promising solutions that address the underlying risks.
“For example, to address data concerns, lawmakers should prioritize passing federal privacy legislation to protect consumer data that would explicitly require companies to disclose who they share data with and hold them accountable for those statements,” Diebold said.
Could the US ever ban TikTok outright?
There have been several attempts at banning TikTok from operating in the US entirely. Rubio’s bill, for instance, would block all of the company’s commercial operations in the US.
But the viability of such bans have yet to be proved. Trump’s previous attempt to ban new users from downloading TikTok was blocked in court in part due to free speech concerns. The EFF general counsel, Kurt Opsahl, said a total ban is a violation of free speech and while Rubio’s bill and similar proposed laws to ban TikTok purportedly “protect America from China’s authoritarian government”, they actually adopt “one of the hallmarks of the Chinese internet strategy”.
“A government is within its rights to set rules and restrictions on use of official devices it owns, but trying to ban TikTok from public use is something else entirely,” Opsahl said.
“TikTok’s security, privacy and its relationship with the Chinese government is indeed concerning, but a total ban is not the answer,” he continued. “A total ban is not narrowly tailored to the least restrictive means to address the security and privacy concerns, and instead lays a censorial blow against the speech of millions of ordinary Americans.”