In this age of social media, especially during COVID-19, the majority of our social interactions occur online. As members of Generation Z, we have seen multiple social media platforms rise and fall in popularity: first with MySpace, then Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and, most recently, TikTok. TikTok is a social media platform that allows creators to create video content ranging from mindless dances that go viral to content that teenagers cannot help but identify with. In the last month, TikTok has been subject to investigation and has fallen under fire from the U.S government, namely President Trump and Republican Senator, Marco Rubio, with investigations beginning as early as in October 2019, citing a national security threat. This is not just a partisan investigation, as both Chuck Schumer (D) and Tom Cotton (R), called for an investigation as well. However, due to a lack of transparency from the U.S government, many are left to wonder what aspects of TikTok make it a national security threat? The future of TikTok is in question with this proposed ban, and it is imperative that we question the fact that banning media is a blunt overstep and may set a dangerous precedent.
We must consider the content regulations on TikTok and why it seems to be so accurate. The content, which is tailored to the user using an algorithm hidden behind the hashtag #ForYou, shows up in one’s feed through a recommendation system. The term “recommendation system” is not specific to TikTok; they are prevalent in most aspects of one’s digital presence—whether it be online shopping, watching Netflix, or advertisements on your browser—you will find them almost anywhere. This recommendation system collects thousands of data points from all over the app and uses them to cultivate the perfect user experience based on one’s interests. When you like, comment, share, or indicate that you are not interested in a post, that is a data point TikTok uses. Similarly, cookies are used to personalize the ads and sponsored content you see, not just on TikTok, but on Google and other sites as well. This type of data collection was noted in the TikTok Terms of Service and should be on most sites you view. The majority of people believe that this is what the U.S government is referencing when TikTok is called a national security threat; however, it is much more complicated than a recommendation system that hundreds of apps and online services use.
It is crucial to consider the origins of TikTok and how they play into the ban. Formerly known as Musical.ly, TikTok is owned by the Chinese company, ByteDance, located in Beijing, China. Due to their location, ByteDance is under the jurisdiction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While ByteDance is considered an independent, international organization, because its headquarters are located in China, all business proceedings and data are subject to the CCP. This, however, does not mean that the CCP will look through and steal U.S data. They would have to break encryption, which takes time and is especially laborious. However, it is reasonable to ask where your data is going and who sees it.
Like most international companies, TikTok has a regional headquarters in the United States located in Los Angeles, California. As a result, all users who download the app in the U.S and register in the U.S will have their data stored in U.S servers. Because ByteDance owns TikTok, and because ByteDance is located in Beijing, there are servers in China that hold a backup of all user data. This is what potentially allows the CCP to access U.S user data. However, the statement that the CCP has access to all U.S user data across all apps, including location, is false. These suspicions result from the CCP furthering and expanding the breadth of their surveillance, coupled with the control and censoring of content on TikTok in China.
Similar to Zoom, which uses Chinese servers during the night to boost speed in the U.S during the day and vice versa, data from TikTok will circulate through Chinese servers. Normally, this would not be an issue with international companies. Consequently, due to ambiguous laws on data collection and cybersecurity in the CCP, the legitimacy of national security must be questioned.
An argument for TikTok to remain available in the U.S is that an executive ban on TikTok restricts the freedom of U.S citizens and those who use the app and violates the Constitution. Teenagers across the country have formed their own opinions on the issue, claiming that “this is the best decision the president ever made,” or that “without TikTok, what is there left?” Opinions range from enthusiastically encouraging the ban of TikTok, to influencers writing a Medium article about why TikTok should not be banned. We are trailing a very fine line between enforcing national security and securing the right to freedom for the American people.
While the President advocated for an executive ban on the app at first, due to legal restrictions in U.S law, the President does not have the authority to ban TikTok fully. While he cannot ban TikTok, due to recent laws and security measures put in place for a scenario similar to this one, the President can restrict TikTok in the United States and remove the presence of ByteDance. As a result, he backtracked on his previous statement and is forcing the hand of major U.S tech companies, such as Microsoft, to purchase TikTok and make it exclusively a U.S company. This acquisition would mean that the many teenagers who spend hours a day scrolling and double-tapping could continue to do so. If Microsoft, a U.S. company, acquired TikTok, all user data would solely belong to the U.S, and would not be subject to the Chinese Communist Party. However, if a deal cannot come to reality, national security should fall paramount, especially with rising tensions between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party.
While TikTok is undoubtedly one way to waste the seemingly endless time we have in quarantine, the possible implications of a ban would mean that the youth, my generation — generation Z — would have to find an alternative to TikTok. It is the right of Americans to produce content they want to share what they love and create, but we must consider the effects of stolen data. Ultimately, it comes down to the safety and security of the people, and if a deal is not reached, we can live without the presence of TikTok until an alternative is found. In the meantime, all the influencers shall pray that Microsoft will acquire TikTok and allow the creativity — though mindless — to continue.