May 14, 2024

Yes, TikTok Poses A Security Threat. No, Gov Shouldn’t Ban It

By: Brittany Hunter

TikTok’s days in the United States may be numbered unless the Chinese app is sold to an American buyer. 

President Biden recently signed a foreign aid bill that allocated $95 billion to Ukraine, Israel, and other U.S. allies. But there is more to that bill than meets the eye. Tucked away in the depths of the bill’s text was another provision that forces TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, to sell the popular social platform or face a full-fledged ban within the United States.

Congressional threats to ban TikTok aren’t new and have most certainly been met with a fair amount of criticism. Perhaps sensing the difficulty they might have passing a piece of legislation specifically creating a TikTok ban, the Senate sneakily lumped the provision into a foreign aid bill. Now signed into law, ByteDance has one year to sell TikTok. 

Why Ban TikTok?

TikTok has been the source of controversy since it rose to prominence during the pandemic. And to be sure, there is a laundry list of reasons to be wary of TikTok. Anyone who has ever used the app or been around someone who has knows just how addictive it can be. Ashamed as I am to admit, I have lost hours of my life to ceaseless scrolling. Videos on the app must be three minutes or less, which has most certainly done a number on the attention span of users–I know it has for me. There are also mental health concerns, especially for young users who find it hard to live up to the facade of physical perfection they see on the app–an app that lets users add a variety of filters to make them look their best, and often, unrecognizable.

But these concerns are the same across all social media platforms. What Congress is most concerned about is the amount of data the Chinese app collects from its American users. ByteDance has tried to assure the U.S. government that it has no mal intent when it comes to the data it gathers. But in reality, that is a promise the ByteDance doesn’t have the authority to guarantee.

As a foreign company, TikTok is dictated by the laws of the Chinese Communist Party. In China, there are no “private” companies–all entities belong to the state. If the Chinese government demands that ByteDance hand over the data, it will have no choice but to comply.

Expressing his concern, Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat told CBS’ Face the Nation that, “The idea that we would give the Communist Party this much of a propaganda tool, as well as the ability to scrape 170 million Americans’ personal data, it is a national security risk.”

Is this a valid concern? Yes. Is it a terrifying prospect? Absolutely. But does this mean the government should be allowed to step in and ban the app? If we are going by free market standards, absolutely not. 

To Ban or Not to Ban?

Love TikTok or hate it, it’s not the government’s job to ban an app to protect Americans. In a free society, individuals are free to weigh the consequences of a decision and make their own choices. And all choices come with tradeoffs.

When I purchased my Google Home, I knew that the convenience of having a virtual assistant came at the expense of my privacy. But it is my personal data and thus, my decision to make. Ultimately, I made the decision that was right for me without government interference.

Likewise, everytime I log into Facebook or Instagram, Meta collects my data. Yet, I still choose to use these apps. And the government “allows” me to do so. Why is the same not true of TikTok? Because unlike TikTok, Meta is an American company. 

Yes, cybersecurity is an important issue and TikTok does collect a lot of data on its users. But there are far bigger fish to fry on the cybersecurity front than TikTok. 

There is also a hint of irony surrounding Congress’ efforts to protect the privacy of American TikTok users from data collection. For starters, the United States government may just be the worst perpetrators of individual data collection. Thanks to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, Americans now know that the government routinely spies and collects data on its own citizens and even those abroad. Yet, the government has done nothing to protect us from their own data mining operations and I doubt they ever will. 

The whole thing feels a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

TikTok’s Positive Aspects

Despite what you may have heard, TikTok isn’t just videos of cringe teenagers dancing. 

Comedians, like myself, have used TikTok to expand their reach and build an audience that ultimately helps them build their real life career. 

And it’s not just comedians.

About one-third of TikTok influencers are able to use their content to earn a living. This spans from aspiring chefs to makeup artists and numerous other content categories. TikTok has created more jobs and economic mobility than any government initiative or law ever could. 

If you take away the app you take economic opportunity away from countless TikTok entrepreneurs.

TikTok is also highly educational. Your TikTok feed is dependent on the videos you watch, that is part of the app’s genius. If you routinely watch cooking videos, you’ll see more cooking videos. As someone who loves to cook, I have been amazed by the number of new recipes and cooking techniques I’ve learned, from baking bread to making my own cheese. The same is true for history, DIY projects, and even legal information.

To discount the entire app as a waste of time or a mindsuck would be naive at best.

Americans are right to fear TikTok’s data collection just as they are right to fear data collection from Apple, Google, and especially our own government.

But banning the app is not the answer nor is it the government’s authority to do so. That is a job reserved for each individual person.