The backlash against China-owned TikTok in the U.S. and other Western countries escalated in recent days, as some U.S lawmakers pushed to give President Joe Biden the authority to impose a ban on the app for all users.
Canada banned TikTok on government-issued mobile devices on Monday, following a similar ban from the European Union last week.
TikTok, which has more than 100 million monthly active users in the U.S., has faced growing scrutiny from government officials over fears that user data could fall into the possession of the Chinese government and the app could ultimately be weaponized by China to spread misinformation.
However, the fight to ban TikTok risks imposing undue limits on free speech and private business, mimicking the type of censorship for which some Western countries have faulted China, according to some experts and civil liberties advocates.
Here’s what to know about why TikTok is being banned, and whether government officials would eventually prevent everyday users from accessing the app:
Why is TikTok being banned?
The primary concern raised by officials banning TikTok centers on data security, especially fears that user information could end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
Such concerns focus both on potential risks posed to U.S. national security, as well as business advantages afforded to Chinese companies that may gain access to the information, Aynne Kokas, professor of media studies and the director of the East Asia Center at the University of Virginia, told ABC News.
“There are significant national security concerns about Chinese firms that are gathering data in the U.S. and what they can do with that,” Kokas said. “TikTok has a lot of users.”
Companies that operate in China must comply with laws that require them to share data with the government, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said at a panel event earlier this month.
“The bottom line is China has been quite clear that they are trying to mold and put forward the use and norms around technologies that privilege their interests,” she said. “There’s a reason we need to be very concerned.”
In addition, some officials have raised the alarm that the Chinese government could use TikTok to spread false information, possibly influencing political discourse and election outcomes.
“There are concerns about the lack of algorithmic transparency on TikTok, and the potential for mis- and disinformation,” Kokas said.
Which countries have banned TikTok?
A slew of countries have imposed restrictions on TikTok.
In 2020, India imposed a full ban on TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps, citing data privacy and national security concerns. TikTok has faced temporary bans for all users in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan over the spread of content deemed inappropriate by government officials.
Some countries have joined the U.S. in banning TikTok on government-issued devices. Canada and the European Union imposed such measures in recent days. Taiwan also banned the app from government devices last year.
In response to the government-device bans, TikTok told ABC News in a statement: “We appreciate that some governments have wisely chosen not to implement such bans due to a lack of evidence that there is any such need, but it’s disappointing to see that other government bodies and institutions are banning TikTok on employee devices with no deliberation or evidence.”
“We share a common goal with governments that are concerned about user privacy, but these bans are misguided and do nothing to further privacy or security,” the company added.
Will the U.S. ban TikTok entirely?
So far, restrictions of TikTok in the U.S. at the state and federal level have solely focused on banning the app from government-issued devices and currently no further bans have been put in place.
“There’s a huge amount of logic for government-device bans,” Kokas said. “It doesn’t fall victim to the same conversations about free speech because these are government-owned devices.”
The Biden administration said on Monday that it is giving federal agencies 30 days to guarantee they do not have TikTok on any federal devices.
“We’ll continue to look at other actions that we can take,” Olivia Dalton, the White House principal deputy press secretary, told reporters on Tuesday. “That includes how to work with Congress on this issue further.”
In response to the U.S. ban of the app on government-issue devices, TikTok told ABC News: “The ban of TikTok on federal devices was passed in December without any deliberation, and unfortunately that approach has served as a blueprint for other world governments. These bans are little more than political theater.”
“We hope that when it comes to addressing national security concerns about TikTok beyond government devices, Congress will explore solutions that won’t have the effect of censoring the voices of millions of Americans,” the company added.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in March about the company’s data security practices, the committee said last month.
More than half of U.S. states have taken steps toward a partial or full ban of TikTok on government devices.
Some lawmakers and advocates, however, have sought to extend the ban to all U.S. users. The House Foreign Affairs Committee is weighing a measure that would grant Biden new authority to ban TikTok.
TikTok has undergone a yearslong review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which could result in a ban of the app or a forced sale of the company’s U.S. operation.
Despite momentum among lawmakers for a full U.S. ban, the likelihood of such a move remains low, experts told ABC News. citing the dramatic intervention into the private sector that it would require. Moreover, if such a move did take place, it would face a challenge in the courts, they added.
“I’m skeptical that a ban would survive constitutional scrutiny in the U.S.,” Anupam Chander, a professor of law and technology at Georgetown University, told ABC News. “Because we have a First Amendment right to receive information, even information from adversary countries.”
In a letter to federal lawmakers on Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union voiced opposition to a full ban of TikTok.
“Congress must not censor entire platforms and strip Americans of their constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at the ACLU.