Since its 2018 debut, the video app known as TikTok has taken the U.S. market by storm. In 2022, TikTok saw 3 billion downloads, 1 billion monthly users, and 1 billion videos viewed per day. So, the big question is why is this video app being banned in the United States? The answer is that it’s complicated.
What is TikTok?
TikTok is a short-form video-sharing social media platform, where users can interact, watch and see continuous videos. In 2018 and 2019, the social media investigators at Bosco Legal started using TikTok to collect evidence on subjects, primarily those who were high school and college-aged. While this app still appeals to younger demographics, during the pandemic, the app saw an increase in the number of users from all age groups. In 2020, TikTok became the year’s most downloaded app worldwide, with reports revealing that TikTok was used more than Netflix and YouTube in Spain, the U.K., and the U.S. Although the app is currently known in the U.S. as TikTok, the app has gone through various names, and is still being called by its first iteration, Douyin, in its Chinese markets. Given the growth of Douyin/TikTok, the two have been split and are run as separate subsidiaries of the parent company, ByteDance.
Why is TikTok being banned?
Despite the popularity of this video social media giant, it has received backlash from users and politicians for multiple reasons, including its appeal to underage users, censorship policies, data collecting, and questions of ownership.
In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission found that TikTok “illegally collected personal information from children” by not obtaining or requiring their parents’ permission before they signed up, and TikTok ultimately agreed to pay a settlement of $5.7 million.
The company has also been in hot water for censoring videos that would be considered critical or sensitive to Chinese authorities, including the removal of pro-Tibetan independence-related content. As early as 2019, TikTok admitted to artificially reducing the views of videos that were deemed inappropriate. Although TikTok has gone on to say that they have instituted changes to address these issues, in 2021 the company was in trouble again, when users like Ziggi Tyler, revealed that phrases like “black people” and “black voices” were being flagged as inappropriate.
According to U.S. lawmakers, another significant issue with TikTok is the way that it handles its data and the lack of protection of user information. With ownership of the app being Chinese and the storage of the data being held in China, American politicians have raised doubts regarding the ability of the data to be protected. With China continuing to tighten its hold on the growing technology industry, a policy has been implemented that requires companies like ByteDance to be subject to data audits by the Chinese government.
Although TikTok and ByteDance have offices in China, the company has tried to explain that they are not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. However, business records and online reports found that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does have a 1% stake in ByteDance’s Chinese TikTok company, Douyin. In the name of cybersecurity, TikTok has become a topic associated with modern-day espionage. The fear of a potential data leak became all too real when in December 2022, four employees of ByteDance, illegally accessed the data and IP addresses of multiple U.S.-based TikTok users, including two journalists.
These multiple missteps by TikTok are leading the charge for its ban in the United States of America.
Is it already banned in the United States of America?
As of today, many U.S. government offices forbid the use of TikTok on government-issued phones, with the U.S. Navy and Army having banned the app in 2019. In 2020, former president Donald Trump attempted to go one step further and sought to ban TikTok across the U.S., but was sued and the matter was eventually dropped, allowing TikTok to continue to operate in the U.S.
Over the past few weeks, governors in South Dakota, South Carolina, and Maryland have taken steps to ban TikTok from all government-issued devices. Following the steps of the 19 states that started to limit and ban TikTok on government-issued devices, in December 2022 TikTok became officially banned from all U.S. House of Representatives-managed devices.
Have other countries banned TikTok?
As of 2022, over 6 countries have placed limits and bans on TikTok, including the most recent December 2022 temporary ban in Jordan, which was implemented following the death of a police officer that occurred during a clash with protesters over high fuel prices.
The information collected by TikTok and its addictive nature are not necessarily unique to TikTok, and is similar to what other social media sites are doing (interestingly there are a group of current and growing lawsuits on the addiction issue). The big difference here is how the data is being used. While other social media platforms use the data to addict and market for profit, TikTok does the same, but then allegedly also shares that data with the Chinese government to spy on users.
Over the years, TikTok has made moves to demonstrate its commitment to protecting private data. In 2020, TikTok moved their U.S.-based user data to new servers at the U.S.-based Oracle Corp. According to the Austin Business Journal, TikTok has also leased over 125,000 square feet of office space in Austin, Texas. With TikTok taking steps to show compliance in protecting data, the question becomes; should TikTok still be banned?
Considering that just a few weeks ago, four employees of ByteDance accessed the data and IP address of multiple U.S.-based TikTok users, including two journalists; the threat to private information is still real. This will in no doubt further inflame the U.S. government’s mistrust of TikTok and further demonstrate that it remains a cybersecurity threat.
Either way, TikTok’s downloads and active users are still growing, indicating that in the U.S. and across the world, people continue to choose entertainment and convenience over privacy. With this in mind, it is the job of detectives like the investigators of Bosco Legal Services to stay up-to-date with how and what social media platforms are used, in order to conduct thorough cyber investigations.
For additional information into our processes and how we conduct our social media investigations, please read our articles on How Social Media Has Shaped Digital Forensics and Admissibility Of Social Media Evidence: Guidance For Court Cases.