TikTok on the chopping block: Bipartisan potential ban on the social media app is unprecedented

TikTok, a popular social media platform for short clips and videos, was introduced to the American public in 2017. Since then, it’s amassed more than 150 million users in the United States alone, a majority of whom are Gen Z users.

On March 7, the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The RESTRICT Act aims to punish foreign companies that attempt to interfere with American elections or politics. More specifically, the bill will ban TikTok in the U.S. This would be the first time the U.S. government would ban a social media platform.

Even the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to access TikTok could be criminalized under the RESTRICT Act. 

“It is unprecedented for the government to do this, but we also have to keep in mind that the digital space throughout the history of the United States is only a small part,” said Andrew Selepak, master’s program coordinator at the University of Florida. “I mean, blogs [weren’t] even created until the mid-90s”

TikTok is owned by a Beijing-based company, ByteDance Ltd., and has been banned in other countries – including India – due to concerns about the company mining users’ data. 

“When you have a company in China, it’s always going to be in some respects, a subsidiary of the Chinese government,” Selepak said. “So the Chinese government would be able to request access from any company in China.”

Chinese companies are not the only ones that mine data on social media. Meta Inc., an American company that owns Instagram and Facebook, also mines and sells their users’ data. 

“You know, if this was the government of the U.K., that was able to get access to data from you no social media company that was based in the U.K., I don’t think we’d be seeing the same concerns,” said Samantha Close, DePaul communications professor. “There is a geopolitical situation, the U.S. and U.K. are much more aligned than the U.S. and China are certainly.”

There have been speculations that TikTok might be banned due to sinophobia, or discrimination against Chinese people. 

“If it was a government in the Middle East, we would probably be seeing the same sorts of restrictions, and you have the same sorts of xenophobic and racist sentiment there,” Close said. “And so I think that there are some legitimate concerns about access to data, but American social media companies really do the exact same thing [mine data].”

Most of the concern is with the Chinese government being able to access users’ data, rather than the company itself. 

“We have not seen American companies really standing up to say the FBI or other American law enforcement companies who wanted access to data, whether it be about protesters, you know, cell phone companies, kind of the same protesters or people who are taking part in the Jan. 6 riots,” Close said. “You know, we’ve really seen broad cooperation from American social media companies with American law enforcement, also.”

Meta has been lobbying against TikTok for months, according to The Washington Post.

“Facebook is watching as its target demographic and its main user base is aging. Facebook now is the thing that your parents do,” Close said. “It’s not what you know, cool, popular teenagers do and they hate that, and so they’re trying anything that they can to get rid of a competitor and to maybe scoop up some of the people who then wouldn’t be able to use TikTok anymore.”

DePaul alum and communications coordinator for Northwestern University Hector Cervantes is concerned with the potential ban impacting young people and content creators. 

“If TikTok were to be banned, it’s losing a platform for people that actually actually make money and as living so I think it would hurt them a lot in that particular way,” Cervantes said.

There are also concerns with how this ban can impact free speech, especially the free speech of the mostly younger people who are on the app. Legally, however, there is no impediment to free speech since TikTok is a privately owned company.

“I tend to think that it’s a problem that all of our social media and internet spaces are privately owned, I think there needs to be much more public ownership of what is essentially a public resource,” Close said. “That’s not the way that it stands legally.”

TikTok has also been a platform for many political content creators, especially anti-capitalist creators, to connect with one another.

“I think that this kind of action also, when you take away a communal space, it can radicalize the population even more, because that’s when those who are on the margins realize… ‘we’re really being oppressed here,’” Close said. “And to the extent that you could see taking away Tiktok, it’s a targeted action towards people who are expressing those [anti-capitalist] ideas.”

Cervantes is not too concerned with TikTok or the Chinese government having access to his data. 

“I don’t know what they’ll use my data for. There’s nothing for me to hide. I’m not doing anything bad,” Cervantes said.

Selepak believes that data mining could become a concern for people as they get older.

“You’re going to get older, most likely, as you get older, you’re going to have medical issues, more medical issues, that medical information. So there are things that are digital, we want to keep private. You know, I don’t want my medical information being in the hands of many people, I want it to be in my hands and my doctor’s hands,” Selepak said. “I want my financial information to be in my hands and my bank’s hands. I don’t want other people to get access to it.”

There is plenty of information besides medical and financial records that could impact young people if it is accessed by other people and companies.

“Let’s say you are somebody who hasn’t come out [as LGBTQ] to your parents, you haven’t come out to your family, and you have been going to different websites, you’ve been going, visiting different locations…Somebody else uses your laptop, and they’re like, Why are you suddenly getting all these ads? This seems odd,” Selepak said.

While some believe that banning TikTok is necessary to protect national security, many are upset to lose a social media platform.

“My main app is Snapchat that I use, that’s my main social media app. And if that were to be ever taken away, it’s my platform that I use to promote myself and other things, like articles, like my daily life… it would lose a major chunk of my friends, [and] my platform that I have,” Cervantes said.