The US state of South Dakota banned TikTok from government-owned devices citing threats to user data, after state Governor Kristi Noem on Tuesday (November 30) issued an executive order.
“The Chinese Communist Party uses information that it gathers on TikTok to manipulate the American people, and they gather data off the devices that access the platform,” Noem said in a statement. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company that moved its headquarters to Singapore in 2020.
Some other US government agencies and the US Pentagon (the headquarters of its Department of Defence) also have such bans in place.
But even before the latest decision, TikTok’s operations in the US were always viewed with suspicion, as the app has only gained unprecedented virality and dedicated users in the past few years. Former US President Donald Trump had previously advocated for a ban on the app, and the head of the US communications regulation agency once cited India’s ban on the app to demand its removal from online app download stores.
TikTok has been on the radar of the US government as it began gaining popularity, particularly among younger users, in a landscape dominated by US-owned social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
The app has been under scrutiny by US officials since 2019 when the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US — or Cfius — began reviewing a merger between the app’s parent company ByteDance Ltd. and Musical.ly.
With TikTok’s Chinese origins, and the concern that Chinese companies would ultimately be under the control of the Chinese government, then US President Donald Trump became an early critic of the app. He alleged TikTok might be passing on information about US users to the Chinese government.
On its part, TikTok has denied any such action and emphasised it has kept data secure. Theo Bertram, TikTok’s head of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said it would refuse any request from China to hand over data, telling the BBC, “The suggestion that we are in any way under the thumb of the Chinese government is completely and utterly false.”
Trump then signed an executive order to prevent new downloads of the app in 2020. He later said the company could continue in the US if it agreed to sell to a US company, with the name of Microsoft doing the rounds.
With Presidential elections due in 2020, as well as legal challenges posed to Trump’s executive order, the attempts at a ban never materialised. The order was challenged by a few app users in court, and in December 2020 a court order said the Commerce Department “likely overstepped” its legal authority in issuing the effective TikTok ban, failing to consider other alternatives.
The White House under Joe Biden has been more liberal. US officials and the company were recently in talks over a possible agreement that would resolve American security concerns. But this stance has been targeted by US Republicans, who are sounding the alarm on China.
In June 2021, Trump’s order was revoked and replaced by the Biden administration. It outlined a “criteria-based decision framework and rigorous, evidence-based analysis to address the risks” posed by apps related to China, such as TikTok and WeChat, instead of a ban.
The arguments for a ban, however, are increasingly being made by many in the government. FBI Director Christopher Wray reiterated the concerns over data privacy earlier this month.
Brendan Carr, the US Federal Communications Commission, also wrote to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai in June this year, asking for the app’s removal from the App Store and Google Play, respectively.
“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or memes. That’s the sheep’s clothing. At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool,” he said, adding “India—the world’s largest democracy—has already banned TikTok on national security grounds for stealing and surreptitiously transmitting user data in an unauthorized manner.”
Two Republican senators – Marco Rubio and Mike Gallagher – wrote in an opinion article in The Washington Post on November 10, “TikTok offers the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] a unique ability to monitor more than 1 billion users worldwide, including nearly two-thirds of American teenagers. We must ban this potential spyware before it is too late — not encourage its use in the United States, as President Biden is doing.”
They added they will introduce legislation to “ban TikTok and other social media companies that are effectively controlled by the CCP from operating in the United States.” Multiple investigations by US media organisations on Tiktok’s possible misuse of user data have also added to concerns.