Could TikTok, which is fast becoming the world’s most influential social media platform, be banned outright? If so, why?
n recent weeks, western governments have been taking action. The UK, Belgium and European Commission have all now barred TikTok from officials’ phones, with the British saying the move was “good security hygiene”.
The US government did the same some weeks before, with President Joe Biden reportedly warning that if TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, doesn’t sell the social media platform to a non-Chinese firm, it could be banned altogether from app stores in the US.
Here in Ireland, the National Cyber Security Centre is conducting a review of TikTok to brief the Minister for Justice on whether it should be removed from government devices.
What’s going on here? What is the actual perceived threat from TikTok?
As critics see it, the risks are twofold. First, they say, parent company ByteDance may be bound by secretive Chinese laws and regulations to compel the platform to allow officials from the authoritarian regime to access potentially sensitive user data without accountability. Secondly, the social platform’s algorithms and recommendations, critics claim, are open to being influenced by Chinese authorities, based on similar legal obligations in ByteDance’s home country.
TikTok has repeatedly denied that either of these scenarios is realistic, saying that it would never give data to the Chinese government and that its algorithms can’t be influenced by Chinese officials, who never get access to them.
Others also question why western governments don’t talk about banning Meta, Google or Microsoft apps on official devices, even though it’s almost certain that US, British and other western security agencies access sensitive user data.
Isn’t this an apparent double standard, they ask? I’ve reported on this for a while, now. I’ve spoken to many people who are critical of TikTok, including some who openly want it banned.
In most cases, when you scratch below the surface with the most trenchant critics, you eventually arrive at the same basic idea. We (the west) aren’t as disturbed by the idea of US security services rooting through our personal data as we are of the Chinese government. This is because we perceive (the west) to be “the good guys” and China “are the bad guys”.
Moreover, even if the Chinese government isn’t doing what we fear they’re doing, well, it’s no harm to give them a bloody nose by stunting one of their star companies, right?
In other words, the TikTok debate is following a similar trajectory to the Huawei one, which eventually saw the Chinese telecom company’s smartphone business decimated in the west because of US sanctions that banned Google from providing Play Store (Google’s app store) access.
Does that mean that we’re inevitably heading for a ban of some sort here?
An imminent general ban here appears to be very low, not least because the government has little practical way of creating it. However, a ban on government devices is not out of the question. If more EU governments follow the lead of Belgium, the European Commission and the UK, Ireland would start to look uncomfortable if it didn’t follow suit.
A potentially complicating factor is TikTok’s significant industrial presence here with 3,000 jobs in Dublin and a second data centre in the planning. But this probably wouldn’t be affected if Ireland is a follower instead of a leader.