India’s government banned TikTok in 2020, becoming the first country to do so, in what government officials described as a “targeted move to ensure safety and sovereignty of Indian cyberspace” after a deadly border clash with China.
Now, almost three years later, the U.S. is inching close to considering similar actions against the popular platform owned by Chinese company ByteDance over its ties to Beijing and national security concerns.
TikTok is extremely popular in the U.S., with over 100 million users ― and topped 1 billion users worldwide in 2021.
But momentum against the platform has been building in the U.S.
Chinese companies and those operating within China are required by law to share data with its government if requested, which proponents of a ban have said could force TikTok to pass on U.S. users’ private data to Beijing.
“All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values, and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interests of the United States,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in early December. “That should concern us.”
TikTok seemed to confirm such worries later that month when it revealed that it fired staff in China and the U.S. after they were found to have accessed the data of two journalists and other U.S. users, according to The Washington Post.
The company has long argued Americans’ information is safe and said that it is working with U.S. company Oracle to further safeguard the app.
“We have not provided U.S. user data to the CCP, nor would we if asked,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew wrote in a letter to senators in June, referring to the Chinese Communist Party, which rules the country.
Meanwhile, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly has been negotiating a deal with TikTok to allow the company to continue to operate in the U.S. while also mitigating the perceived risk to national security. But a deal has not been reached so far.
Growing Calls To Ban TikTok In The U.S.
The White House now seems to be focused on legislation coming out of Congress — a move that could potentially strengthen the Committee on Foreign Investment’s position in its negotiation with the company, according to The New York Times.
Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) on Tuesday introduced bipartisan legislation aimed at curtailing companies that can be misused by foreign actors. The bill aims to enable the Commerce Department to “mitigate foreign threats to information.”
The bill, titled Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology, or RESTRICT, Act, was endorsed by the White House, which had also reviewed a draft version, The New York Times reported. National Security adviser Jake Sullivan called on Congress to “act quickly.”
“This legislation would empower the United States government to prevent certain foreign governments from exploiting technology services operating in the United States in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our national security,” Sullivan said in a statement.
While the RESTRICT Act does not specifically target TikTok, it seeks to give the government more power to act against companies that are deemed a risk to U.S. users. That could include banning the companies.
“In terms of foreign technology coming into America, we’ve got to have a systemic approach to make sure that we can ban or prohibit it when necessary,” Warner said on “Fox News Sunday” while previewing the bill.
“That means TikTok is one of the potential” companies the bill could affect, the senator added Sunday.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told CNN a possible U.S. TikTok ban would effectively be “a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide.”
The White House has already ordered federal agencies to remove TikTok from government devices by the end of this month, citing security concerns.
The House Foreign Affairs committee approved a bill introduced by its chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) last week that would grant President Joe Biden more power to outlaw the app in the U.S. using the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The bill must be approved by the full House and Senate.
Sources told The Financial Times that TikTok’s future will depend on how its CEO performs in a hearing before the House energy and commerce committee later this month.
If the U.S. moves forward with banning TikTok, it could look to India as an example.
Why Did India Ban TikTok?
India provides “an important precedent” and a blueprint for other countries to follow in banning TikTok, Brendan Carr, the senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, said earlier this year.
“India’s strong leadership has been informative and helpful as we have debated banning TikTok in the U.S.,” Carr told The Economic Times in an interview published in early January. “For those who argue that there is no way to ban an app, India is an example of a country that has done it and done it successfully.”
India’s Ministry of Information Technology in June 2020 announced it was banning 59 Chinese-made apps, including TikTok, saying that they posed a danger to the country. It has since gone on to outlaw even more Chinese companies.
“The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures,” the ministry said in a statement at the time.
The action came following a border dispute between India and China that turned deadly, killing 20 Indian soldiers.
TikTok was very popular at the time the government decided to impose the ban, boasting over 200 million active monthly users in the country.
What Has The Impact Of The Ban Been In India?
India’s TikTok ban by no means stopped the rapid growth of short-form video content in the country.
On the contrary, the sudden ban “supercharged the segment,” according to Bloomberg, which in 2021 estimated the social media video market in India could be worth $20 billion.
The TikTok ban seems to have accelerated the rollout of short-form video features on existing platforms, including Meta’s Instagram Reels and Alphabet’s YouTube Shorts. It also led to the creation of domestic companies like Moj, which has received funding from Alphabet’s Google.
“We charged like bulls and launched Moj in 30 hours,” Ankush Sachdeva, the co-founder of Moj’s parent company ShareChat, told Bloomberg about how TikTok’s ban prompted the new platform.
Instagram launched Reels in August 2020 after a monthslong trial in Brazil. And YouTube launched Shorts in India in September 2020, six months before it introduced the service in the U.S.
The decision to ban TikTok in India affected the company’s staff in the country.
The social media giant reportedly decided to lay off its remaining workforce in India in February, after it was made clear operations wouldn’t restart given the government’s continued hostility toward Chinese apps, a source told India’s Economic Times.
India’s abrupt ban of TikTok could also raise concerns for international companies looking to do business in the country, according to Amit Jangir, co-founder of Karbon Card, a Shanghai-based fintech startup.
“I’m afraid that a lot of overseas investors will now be reluctant or hesitant given that policy changes can be so drastic,” Jangir told Insider in 2020.
What Are The Concerns Around Banning TikTok?
A TikTok ban would certainly receive pushback in the U.S.
One of the strongest criticisms against a potential U.S. ban is that it would represent a form of economic protectionism, said Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In other words, it would send a message that the U.S. is promoting U.S. companies at the expense of others.
There is already evidence that could be a direct outcome.
Snap, the parent company of Snapchat, on Monday saw its shares rise by 9.5% after Warner previewed his bill and an additional 5% on Tuesday following the announcement of the legislation.
Meta, which would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of a TikTok ban, reportedly paid a GOP consulting company last year to create a campaign promoting claims that TikTok is dangerous for children and society at large, according to internal emails reviewed by The Washington Post.
Chin told HuffPost a U.S. ban “could potentially set a precedent for more countries to increasingly turn to protectionist actions that could potentially risk further fracturing the internet.”
“Instead of promoting free data flows, this will pretty much do the opposite,” Chin added.
Critics of a ban have argued it could infringe on users’ First Amendment rights.
Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, has criticized both Warner’s bill in the Senate and McCaul’s House bill.
“Unfortunately, the Senate bill is a roundabout route to the same bad place reached more directly by the House bill,” Leventoff said in a statement.
“If the [Commerce] Secretary uses this newfound power to ban TikTok or other communications platforms without evidence of overwhelming, imminent harm, it would violate our right to freedom of expression,” Leventoff continued.
A ban would have to be tailored to a specific threat under the First Amendment, Chin explained.
“There’s no direct evidence yet that the Chinese government has yet used TikTok as a vessel for either propaganda or surveillance,” Chin said, adding that other platforms, including U.S. ones, are already engaging in that type of action.
Chin said the U.S. has very few regulations on data protection and content moderation and that a TikTok ban wouldn’t make Americans safer.
“Many mobile apps, not just TikTok, are collecting very similar types of data, which could also very easily end up in the hands of the Chinese government,” Chin said.
U.S. Efforts To Restrict TikTok In The Past
Former President Donald Trump began his efforts to effectively ban TikTok via executive order in August 2020 and again in January 2021. But the push failed in court, leading Biden to rescind the orders in 2021.
MIT Sloan School of Management professors Keman Huang and Stuart Madnick warned in the Harvard Business Review about the disruption that the proposed ban could cause to international trade.
“The abuse of ‘national security threat’ is snowballing and leading to an escalating trade war that could disrupt world trade,” they wrote in August 2020, following Trump’s Aug. 6 executive orders.
They pointed to the historical example of the Smoot-Hawley Tariffs in the 1930s.
While the objective behind the tariffs was to safeguard farmers who had suffered during the Great Depression, the move backfired as U.S. trade partners retaliated and imposed greater tariffs in return.
“In general, there are rarely winners in trade wars, and probably not in cyber trade wars,” Huang and Madnick concluded.
How U.S. Users Have Reacted On The Platform
Many U.S. TikTok users have been closely following the news developments around a potential ban, with some calling on their audience to follow them on other platforms like Youtube and Instagram.