We’ve been hearing for years about how TikTok collects data globally and presents it to its parent company in China, and potentially from there to the powers that be. But despite renewed calls today from FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, the popular app is highly unlikely to be banned outright. This does not mean, however, that he will be allowed to continue with impunity.
Commissioner Carr’s opinion appeared in a interview with Axios, during which he said he didn’t believe “nothing but a ban” would be enough to protect Americans’ data from being collected by Chinese companies and authorities. (To be clear, he is speaking his own position, not the FCC’s; I asked two other people at the agency to comment and received no response.)
This isn’t the first time Carr has voiced this idea. After BuzzFeed News reported data irregularities implied by leaked internal communications, it wrote in June to Apple and Google calling the app an “unacceptable national security risk” and asking companies to remove it from their app stores. They didn’t, and now we come back to the issue of federal action — first pondered by the Trump administration, which despite numerous actions restricting China’s reach in the United States has never managed to lock TikTok.
The reason is quite simple: it would be political self-sabotage. TikTok isn’t just a hugely popular app — it’s the life raft that a generation that ditched the noble ships Facebook, Instagram, and soon to be Twitter clung to for years. And the reason is that American companies are nowhere near replicating TikTok’s algorithmic addiction exploit.
TikTok’s success in sticking Gen Z to their phones isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing — that’s a different discussion. Taking its place in the zeitgeist for granted, it nevertheless makes a ban politically risky for multiple reasons.
First, that would be extremely unpopular. The vote of disaffected young people is extremely important right now, and any president, senator or representative who supports such a ban would be viewed sideways by young people. Already out of touch with technology and the priorities of the younger generation, DC would now also be seen as the fun police. Whether it pushes voters to the other side or simply prevents them from voting, there are no good results. Ban TikTok does not secure votes and it’s fatal before you even start thinking about how to do it. (Not to mention that it looks like the government is stepping in to give struggling US social media companies a boost.)
Second, there is no clear path to a ban. The FCC cannot do this (no jurisdiction). Despite the alleged threat to national security, the Pentagon cannot do this (ditto). The feds can’t force Apple and Google to do this (first amendment). Congress will not (see above). An Executive Order will not (too broad). No judge will (no plausible case). All routes to bans are impractical for one reason or another.
Third, any effective ban would be a messy, drawn-out, contested thing with no guarantee of success. Imagine that somehow the government forced Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their stores and remotely erase or disable it on phones. No one likes this look – corporations look too weak and too strong, letting authorities push them, then showing their power to reach out and touch “your” device. An IP-based ban would be easily circumvented, but would also set another nasty censorship precedent that, ironically, would make the United States look much more like China. And even if one or the other or both were tempted, they would be opposed in court not only by ByteDance, but also by companies around the world who don’t want the same thing to happen to them if they get hit. and the government doesn’t like it.
For these reasons and more, an outright prohibition by law, decision, or act of God is highly unlikely. But don’t worry: there are other tools in the toolbox.
If you can’t beat ’em, bother ’em
The government may not be able to kick TikTok out of the country, but that doesn’t mean it has to be nice to let them stay. In fact, chances are they’ll do their best to make it outright unpleasant.
The company and service exist in a kind of loophole, from a regulatory standpoint, like most social media companies. The addition of Chinese ownership is both a complicating factor and an opportunity.
It’s more complicated because the US can’t directly affect ByteDance’s policies. On the other hand, as a “foreign adversary,” China’s ascendancy over private industry is a legitimate national security concern and policy can be shaped around it. This involves various more independent agencies that are free to set rules within their remit – the FCC cannot, in this case, litigate. But what about the Commerce Department? Homeland security? The FTC? Besides, what about states like California?
Rule-making agencies have a free hand — and like the tacit support of Congress — to expand their own fiefdoms to TikTok’s boundaries, with national security acting as a catch-all reason. If Commerce adds “connected software applications” to the supply chain security rules as it has proposed, suddenly the data going in and out of the application is arguably under its protection. (All of this would be stated in various definitions and repositories at the time of rulemaking.)
What if TikTok’s source code, user data, and other important assets were subject to regular audits to ensure they complied with cross-border data supply chain rules? Well, that’s a pain in the neck for ByteDance because it has to go through its codebase to make sure it’s not giving away too much. Having to prove that he manages the data as he says he does, to the satisfaction of US authorities who have given free rein to their whim, is not pleasant at all. And that’s only from a relatively quick rule change – imagine the FTC getting a new authority to audit algorithmic recommendations!
More importantly, it gives the US government a string to pull if ByteDance fails to comply. It’s one thing to say, “We think this company is mishandling US citizens’ data and we’re going to ban it.” It’s quite another to say, “An investigation by auditors found that ByteDance misrepresented its data handling techniques, and if not corrected within 90 days, it will be in violation of the law and removed. app stores.”
Neither Apple nor Google want to remove TikTok from their store, but again, it’s one thing to say, “The feds asked us”
and another to say, “We have to obey the law. It’s out of our hands.
If TikTok has proven to be unresponsive to the actions of the highest levels of government, that just means the job is being handed over to a small army of bureaucrats who would love to be the ones tying up this particular greased pig. This is not a rodeo that no company wants to participate in – American, Chinese or otherwise.