What a TikTok ban would mean for users: Experts weigh in
The Biden administration has presented Chinese company ByteDance with an ultimatum: sell your popular video-sharing app, TikTok, or get banned nationwide.
TikTok has not yet indicated it will sell, but has tried to persuade US officials that they can address security concerns and meet the proposed level of scrutiny. The TikTok CEO argued that a ban would not address security concerns.
But what would a ban mean for consumers? Is there a precedent for such a ban?
NBC News spoke with four people who have studied cybersecurity, national security and tech policy who offered some ideas for how a ban on TikTok might work.
How would a ban work?
It is unclear how the United States would institute a ban. The White House’s best chance to do so would likely come from a bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators last week that enjoys strong White House support.
While the senators behind the bill touted it as a way to potentially ban TikTok, it’s unclear exactly how that would happen. This would give the Secretary of Commerce broader authority to ban foreign technology where the United States believes it poses a threat to national security. However, how this authority would be exercised is up for debate. A Commerce Department spokesperson declined to discuss specifics about how the agency is considering this power.
The easiest mechanism for the government to enforce a ban would be to ban app stores from making TikTok available for download, said Darrell M. West, principal investigator at the Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation. The app might lose functionality over time.
“If there is a ban, there will definitely be no more software updates and improvements, and over time it becomes more difficult to use these apps,” West said.
Using TikTok could also be potentially criminalized, resulting in fines, said Ahmed Ghappour, a law professor at Boston University. This has been done in the past with other banned software that has been flagged as a national security threat. Although he said no such software was “as mainstream as TikTok”.
Can I still use TikTok?
Maybe. An App Store ban would leave the app untouched on phones where it has already been downloaded. Theoretically, these applications would still be operational. The government can’t force people to delete the app, West said.
There is uncertainty as to what the app would look like for grandparents – if existing users could log in and continue to access video sharing and browsing features.
But the US could theoretically go further than that by forcing internet service providers to block the app.
India is the largest country to ban TikTok entirely, having blocked dozens of mostly Chinese apps in 2020. Shortly after the ban, India’s telecommunications ministry ordered internet and wireless service providers to block applications, including TikTok.
Soon after, some TikTok users in India said that the app no longer had any functionality.
Has the United States ever banned an app?
The United States has never issued a blanket ban on an app. TikTok has been subject to a variety of smaller restrictions.
Many public universities have restricted access to the social media app from school-owned devices and campus Wi-Fi networks, and states have banned government-issued devices from downloading the app. .
The United States forced the sale of an application. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) regularly reviews foreign companies to determine whether their activities and transactions pose a threat to national security.
In 2019, the CFIUS forced a Chinese company to divest ownership of the dating app Grindr.
Can I use a VPN to access TikTok?
If the US decides to completely block the app, it’s possible that using a VPN (virtual private network) will give access to the app.
Virtual private networks are services that allow users to redirect their Internet connection through other networks. They are often used to circumvent certain types of internet censorship.
“There are virtual networks that allow people to access western apps,” West said. Americans could use the same to access TikTok. A ban would be difficult to enforce, he added, because there are always loopholes.
Still, the government could target VPN access to make the ban effective. Officials could “prohibit VPN use or require VPN companies to have a blacklist of sites they won’t allow traffic to flow to,” Ghappour said.
Other experts have said that while there may be workarounds to the ban, they may not be sustainable due to the popularity of the app.
“There really would be no way around the ban. The market is too big,” said Elly Rostoum, a political scientist and senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We’re talking about a third of the population of the United States using TikTok.”
Would a ban mean my data is secure?
“The ban does not solve the key problem with TikTok, which is data transfer,” Rostoum said. “There will be another company owned by a Chinese company that can transfer the data.”
Other experts agreed.
“TikTok is just the tip of the iceberg,” said James Lewis, technology expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “Many products have Chinese software.”
Beyond data privacy issues with Chinese companies, the United States has no overarching federal data privacy law, and data brokers freely buy and sell user data with very little oversight. And TikTok’s access to user information isn’t unique – most smartphone apps collect data from users’ phones.