Congress and the Biden administration are weighing various legislative and executive actions to ban TikTok, a social media platform with approximately 150 million US users.However, broad restrictions on TikTok or future non-US communication platforms could carry long-term implications for free speech, global data transfers, and US-China relations. Instead of banning TikTok, the United States could benefit from comprehensive rules to address digital privacy, algorithmic profiling, and content moderation across the entire technology ecosystem.
In March 2023, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) reportedly recommended banning or divesting from TikTok, whose parent company ByteDance is based in China. This marked the latest sign that US-China relations are on an unmistakable downward trajectory. The bilateral relationship had worsened between 2017 to 2020 for a variety of reasons, including China’s response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and mass detention of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang. Former President Trump was an instigating factor as well; he imposed tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese imports, popularized controversial rhetoric including the “China virus,” and even suggested that a TikTok ban was partially motivated by retribution for COVID-19.
When President Biden took office in 2021, it was not initially clear whether he would act to either heighten or de-escalate competitive tensions. Towards the beginning of his term, Biden revoked Trump’s 2020 executive order to block the popular social media app in order to assess the stated security risks and adopted more diplomatic language in general. Yet, his administration recently embarked on a series of more hawkish actions, including restricting semiconductors exports to China in October 2022 and doubling down on Trump’s TikTok ban in March 2023. Members of Congress have also introduced a range of bills in 2023, including the RESTRICT Act, DATA Act, and ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act, that aim to empower the executive branch to ban TikTok. In this manner, tensions with China have risen to a “kitchen table issue”: up to 150 million Americans use TikTok and could be directly impacted by a ban, unlike prior restrictions on telecommunications equipment manufacturers, such as Huawei and ZTE.
The Goals and Challenges of a TikTok Ban or Divestiture
Any policy towards TikTok warrants a careful cost-benefit analysis, especially since a ban or divestiture of a consumer-facing app of this size is virtually unprecedented in the United States. Because divestiture would likely face significant regulatory and financial hurdles, including Chinese export control laws, US antitrust scrutiny, and broader economic volatility, the reported CFIUS decision could result in a de facto ban. Proponents of an outright ban have expressed concerns that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might access TikTok’s user data or even control its content recommendation algorithm to target disinformation. While the Biden administration and Congress have not presented any public evidence of such misuse in the past, their position is that the CCP might do so in the future under statutes such as the 2017 National Intelligence Law. TikTok has attempted to reduce these risks through Project Texas: a plan to store Americans’ personal information in the United States, outside the CCP’s jurisdiction, among other safeguards. The Biden administration has not publicly explained why CFIUS abandoned Project Texas negotiations in favor of a ban or divestiture, but a widespread lack of trust amongst Americans regarding independent Chinese-based companies in the United States complicates any middle-ground agreement.
Indiscriminate data collection poses legitimate privacy and national security risks, but banning or divesting TikTok is not an effective solution to address them. US digital platforms face little to no legal requirements to protect personal information or prevent the proliferation of harmful content. As such, from a practical standpoint, these stated risks would persist even if ByteDance sold TikTok to a US company. In fact, numerous US-based mobile apps and data brokers collect enormous amounts of sensitive personal information and transfer it abroad—including to entities within China. Moreover, disinformation is a decentralized problem that stems from many actors on both US and non-US platforms. Some of the most harmful examples actually originated domestically, such as the “Big Lie” that primarily spread on platforms like Parler, Gab, and Fox News leading up to the US Capitol riots on January 6, 2021. In other words, CFIUS and lawmakers are pushing a TikTok-specific solution to address risks that are scattered across the broader technology ecosystem.
Any cost-benefit analysis must also consider the risks of banning TikTok—not just the risks of it continuing to operate in the United States. In the short-term, a ban would primarily impact US TikTok users, not the CCP: it would block a form of speech and creative expression for approximately one-third of Americans and directly harm brand influencers, musicians, and political organizers. In the long-term, precedent with TikTok could encourage other countries to impose similar restrictions on US companies, especially given widespread global distrust of an underregulated US data ecosystem with frequent privacy scandals in both the public and private sectors. When France followed the United States in prohibiting TikTok on government-issued devices in March 2023, it also included US mobile apps like Twitter, Instagram, and Netflix on that list. The Court of Justice of the European Union previously invalidated two EU-US data transfer agreements in its Schrems I (2015) and Schrems II (2020) decisions, demonstrating how ongoing concerns with US government surveillance, too, could threaten to normalize barriers to international data flows.
More Holistic Approaches to Digital Privacy and Safety
These trends are not sustainable. An increasingly walled-off internet would disrupt global commerce, access to information, and communications flows. Legislation like the RESTRICT Act could signal a long-term policy shift towards banning or selling off additional non-US platforms that transfer personal data—which, in a digital age, could broadly encompass numerous commercial and non-profit entities. Rather than engaging in a potentially perilous action of that scope, Congress should instead create legal limitations on how all US companies process and transfer personal information, including to inform automated profiling and content recommendation algorithms. In turn, the Biden administration must improve public transparency on its decision to divest or ban TikTok and allow opportunities for civil society input—especially for an action that could affect millions of Americans. So far, Congress has placed the entire burden on TikTok to prove that it does not pose security risks, but the administration has not provided a classified congressional briefing or public evidence that: (1) TikTok’s data practices are substantially different from its US-based competitors, (2) it poses a tangible enough threat to warrant a drastic measure like a ban, and (3) more targeted solutions such as updated privacy regulations or Project Texas would not sufficiently address the stated issue.
In recent weeks, several lawmakers have acknowledged that concerns over TikTok’s data collection and algorithmic targeting reflect systemic under regulation across the US digital sector, and have called for comprehensive legislation like the American Data Privacy and Protection Act to set boundaries on how all businesses process, transfer, and store personal information. Despite this recognition, there are a few possible strategic calculations behind the recent momentum to ban just TikTok. First, there is the idea of reciprocity: since China has blocked US companies like Google and Facebook, some might argue that the United States is justified in banning TikTok. After all, the biggest beneficiaries of a TikTok ban would be its US competitors—Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, all of whom engage in comparable data collection and content recommendation tactics. In addition, some contend that banning TikTok could prevent the CCP from accessing social media data to train facial recognition algorithms, thus strengthening the US technological advantage in artificial intelligence development, even though most user-uploaded videos and images are public anyways. In this manner, some lawmakers might see a TikTok ban as an offensive approach—not just a defensive one.
However, this form of economic protectionism is short sighted. It is a product of increasingly hawkish attitudes among US lawmakers, based on a notion of fundamental differences in democratic and authoritarian principles. If the United States takes similar steps to China, it risks undermining its own message. China has already been criticized by much of the world for its “Great Firewall,” and the United States’ global image could similarly suffer if it also resorts to banning large chunks of the internet primarily based on country of origin. Nor should the United States, with a long tradition of free speech, head down the CCP’s path of censoring communications from up to 150 million Americans to address unproven fears that a small fraction of those accounts may express ideas associated with a government it does not like.
During a hearing on March 23, House Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) told TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew: “We do not trust TikTok will ever embrace American values.” But what exactly do American values consist of in a widely polarized nation? During the hearing, legislators blamed TikTok for a range of issues from harming mental health to allowing drug-related content—thereby conflating problems that are specific to TikTok and those that are broader societal issues. In one ironic example, Rep. Kat Cammack (R-FL), who is a board member of the Alachua County Friends of the National Rifle Association, lambasted Chew during the hearing over a user-uploaded video that contained a cartoon gun. But TikTok, like other social media platforms, does not create societal problems; it reflects and amplifies existing domestic trends. That is why the best way to counter foreign influence in the long-term is not to outright ban TikTok or future communications channels—it is to promote democratic values like free expression, individual privacy, and social justice in both the online and offline spaces at home.
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Caitlin T. Chin-Rothmann is a fellow with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. She researches the intersection between technology and society, with a focus on US data privacy, antitrust, and content moderation policies.