The recent spending bill signed by President Biden includes an unexpected provision, “No TikTok on Government Devices Act,” which gives the government 60 days to implement new restrictions on the use of this app by its employees.
Since 2020, more than 20 U.S. states have taken steps to banish the Chinese owned app. A group of Republican U.S. lawmakers even proposed legislation to block TikTok operations entirely in the U.S. While this specific proposal is unlikely to succeed, such strong actions certainly raise questions. This article examines the reasons for these various government’s actions.
TikTok is owned by Byte Dance, a company headquartered in Beijing, China. The app in China is called Doujin. The app is similar but separate from TikTok as we know it in the U.S.
TikTok is popular because of its short videos of dancing bears and other goofy animal antics, clips displaying the latest food trends, and other short videos about people often making a fool of themselves. Each TikTok page is designed for the user’s preference. Called a “For you Page,” the pages reflect content showing the personal preferences of the viewer and often feature influencers on beauty, fashion, food, etc.
The major audience is 16 to 24 years old, and there are over one billion annual users. There are over 50 million daily active TikTok users in the U.S. alone.
The reach and potential influence of TikTok is seen here in the list of the most popular apps. TikTok sits in the #1 position:
The app Primary role
1. TikTok Entertainment
2. Instagram Photo and Video
3. Spotify Music
4. Snapchat Photo and Video
5. What’s App Messaging
6. Amazon Shopping
7. Cap Cut Editing Photos and Videos
8. Twitter Tweeting Messages
9. Facebook Social Network
Influencers, who suggest products on social media, are especially active on TikTok. It is said that some influencers are based in China. That is worrisome to our government; the main concern is that foreign actors (or influencers) could gain access to confidential information from users – a risk if those users happen to be members of government, or employees of U.S. companies dealing with critical government infrastructure or policy issues. The Chinese government can force private companies (like Byte Dance) to turn over data then used for its own nefarious purposes.
The Future of TikTok
The U.S. government is worried about both the data that TikTok has collected by monitoring user activity and its ability to accept advertising dollars. These concerns have prompted the Republican party to lobby against TikTok; it has become a political target for Republicans. That animosity has hurt its reputation and scared off advertisers. The new make-up of Congress creates the possibility of further attack.
It is possible that TikTok will be banished from the U.S. Observers, however, feel that this is not likely due to the popularity of the app. Nobody wants to get on the wrong side of voters, and the popularity of TikTok makes it unlikely that any ban will be created nationally.
POSTSCRIPT: As an aging novice to TikTok, I laugh at some of the dog videos but realize that the app is for younger people. It is watched by a large group daily who, instead of doing homework, enjoy the funny stories shared and the guidance of the influencers. The looming issue is whether that desire for seemingly harmless entertainment and diversion results in abuse of user information that could lead to the app’s downfall.