Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) was joined by U.S. Representative Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) on Thursday in calling for a national ban on TikTok, the Chinese-owned social media platform that is increasingly popular with younger Americans. The lawmakers shared their opinion via an op-ed for The Washington Post.
At issue with Sen. Rubio and Rep. Gallagher is the fact that under China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, all of its citizens and businesses are required to assist in intelligence gathering, and must share any data with Beijing. The app can track a mobile phone’s location, and collect Internet-browsing data of the user. In addition, TikTok also censors politically sensitive topics, the lawmakers added, including the treatment of working conditions in Xinjiang, as well as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Due to its foreign ownership, the app is already banned for use on government devices, while the U.S. military has also discouraged service members from using it. Rubio and Gallagher would like to see a national ban on TikTok – along with any other social media companies that are controlled by China – from operating within the United States.
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Brendan Carr has also called for a ban of the social media app.
Though some have questioned the timing of the op-ed, coming just days after the midterm elections, experts have said the lawmakers do bring up some valid points.
“Its owner Bytedance owes fealty to a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) government whose aims are increasingly at odds with American interests,” explained technology analyst Charles King of Pund-IT. “Plus, the TikTok app contains algorithms and user tracking features that are, to say the least, deeply suspect. But other social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, are also proven channels for spreading lies and misinformation so why didn’t Rubio and Gallagher condemn them, as well?”
This is hardly the first time that U.S. officials have called for a ban of the Chinese-owned platform.
“Back in August 2020, President Trump called for a ban on TikTok,” said tech entrepreneur Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible. “The then-president called for the ban on TikTok as a national security risk when TikTok announced how much data it was collecting on American citizens. This is similar to Facebook losing their antitrust lawsuit when Germany sued Facebook for collecting too much information on their citizens.”
Safko also noted that the app has a huge following in the United States, which certainly raises concerns.
“Currently, 38% of America’s 267.6 million mobile internet users, are TikTok users,” said Safko. “And, 43% of TikTok’s global audience is between 18 and 24 years old, the most impressionable segment of the population. Rubio is right to try to limit the control and information that China is collecting on the American public.”
However, there is the argument that Bytedance should disengage the ability to track users, and refrain from collecting data instead.
“Technology bans should only be the last resort if no other solution has worked,” suggested technology and social media analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics. “There are also significant First Amendment issues at play.”
The FCC’s Carr — who in June called upon Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores — told media outlets last week that he sees there is little confidence in a path forward besides a ban.
Yet, the FCC has no actual jurisdiction on the matter, and even if TikTok seen as a national security threat, the Pentagon doesn’t have international jurisdiction – points noted in a recent TechCrunch report. Neither Apple nor Google could be forced to remove the app from their respective stores, as Entner noted they’re protected by the First Amendment.
Even if the companies were to agree, a total ban would be almost impossible to enforce.
Perhaps the best course of action would be to educate users – especially those in uniform or in government service. Big Brother could be watching, and he may be living in Beijing!