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Tick-tock, time may be running out for TikTok

BYUH’s community shares pros and cons of the U.S. ban of the Chinese app TikTok

A phone sitting on a white background with the TikTok app open on it's screen
TikTok open on a phone
Photo by Nik on Unsplash

U.S. President Joseph Biden signed a law on April 24 that was passed by Congress to ban the Chinese-owned app, Tiktok, unless it is sold to an American-based company within a year, reports National Public Radio on its website.

This was not done to punish TikTok, said Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington State, but to “prevent foreign adversaries from conducting espionage, surveillance, maligned operations, harming vulnerable Americans, our servicemen and women, and our U.S. government personnel.” Some in the BYU–Hawaii community think this was a reasonable decision, but others believe it was a fear-based response.

Fear and fact

Jacqueline Forrest, an alumna from Oregon with an anthropology degree, said the legislation is fear based towards China. “By and large the United States has a long history of fear towards the unknown and that unknown has very often been eastern culture,” she said. People tend to think cultures similar to their own are more civilized, she said, and have more moral standing.

Wyatt Hunter said there are three main areas of concern with TikTok he has heard about in the discussions around this issue. Hunter, a political science major from Colorado, said he sees two of those reasons as more speculative and possibly fear-based, while the third reason has a history that merits concern. “TikTok is just a pawn in geopolitical tensions,” he said. “It is not the first and it won’t be the last.”

TikTok is just a pawn in geopolitical tensions. It is not the first and it won’t be the last.
Wyatt Hunter, a senior political science major from Colorado

The first is that China could use its platform to influence U.S. citizens, elections and culture. “I personally don’t consider this as very significant,” he said, because the Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that such influence programs are rarely effective.

The second concern is TikTok potentially delivering malware to U.S. devices, said Hunter. Malware is any kind of unwanted and harmful software, he explained. It is a normal and common procedure for a phone or apps to receive software updates, he said. TikTok could potentially use a software update to install software on users' phones, he said. “As far as anyone knows, this has not yet happened,” said Hunter, of malware being installed as part of an update. However, he said data from TikTok has been used by the Chinese Communist Party to track down those who speak out against it.

“My main concern is how private information can be used by an adversarial foreign entity,” he said. Data collected by online platforms is used by lots of different companies for different purposes all the time, said Hunter. However, the CCP has a history of using this data for more serious purposes, he explained. For example, using TikTok data, the CCP tracked down protesters in Hong Kong as well as located journalists' locations, said Hunter who researched the issue online.

“There is a high likelihood that the Chinese government has access to U.S. citizens personal information,” said Hunter, citing a former TikTok company engineer who revealed even when Bytedance, TikTok's parent company, stores user data in the United States, the Chinese government still has access to it.

By and large the United States has a long history of fear towards the unknown and that unknown has very often been eastern culture.
Jacqueline Forrest, an alumna from Oregon with an anthropology degree,

The security concerns are valid, said Forrest, but they are valid for all online platforms. “I would love for more user privacy and data security,” she said, “But I have more reason to be concerned about Meta (Facebook and Instagram) based on their track records than I do about TikTok.” She said she's heard of at least two data leaks from Meta that founder Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about by U.S. Congress members.

Hunter agreed saying U.S.-based social media company leaders have been questioned by Congress in the past and are subject to U.S. laws. “We should definitely do more to hold U.S. social media companies accountable, but TikTok is a company that is not entirely beholden to the U.S.,” he explained.

Houghton He, a sophomore from China studying accounting, said before he came to the United States, his parents constantly warned him about shootings in America. He said he believed there was a shooting problem in the United States because people were legally allowed to have guns. His parents told him not to go outside late at night. But, he said, in the two years he has been here, he hasn’t seen a shooting and he feels very safe at night. He compared this to how the United States may be viewing China. He said he thinks the legislation is unfair.

Consequences on a local and geopolitical scale

Forrest said banning TikTok without something to replace it will damage a lot of small and local businesses that rely on it for advertising. “Digital marketing is the name of the game right now for discoverability,” she said. Because of social media’s algorithms, a small paint company is able to show an ad to someone who looks at a lot of art content, she explained. This is a benefit of the data recorded by platforms: both companies and consumers can receive more targeted advertising.

“It is not the reality, but it is the ideal of the American dream and a capitalistic society that people are able to create ideas and small businesses can flourish as much as any large corporation,” she said. Banning TikTok, which is used by small businesses for their marketing, would be leaning towards a communist society which, ironically, is what people are afraid of, said Forrest.

Some cybersecurity companies say intellectual property theft is the greatest wealth transfer in history, said Hunter. To explain, he said, “Imagine if on the eve of finals week, you spent hours upon hours researching and curating a paper. Then a fellow classmate takes all the information and submits it in their name before you can.” This scenario is scaled up to businesses investing time and billions of dollars on research. When these ideas are stolen, it creates distrust in the market and reduces further innovation, he said.

In 2022, the Chinese company Huawei was banned from the United States after it was found to be conducting intellectual property theft and espionage, said Hunter. India already banned TikTok two years before that, in 2020, due to its ongoing rivalry with the CCP over violent border disputes, he said.

Moving through the branches of government

When Forrest first heard about the ban, she said her initial thoughts were, “Haven’t we done this before?” Referring to previous investigations into TikTok.

Former President Donald Trump issued an executive order in 2020 limiting U.S. citizens from downloading the app, explained Hunter, however targeting a specific business with an executive order has legal challenges. When President Biden was elected, he reversed the order and the issue moved to Congress, Hunter continued. “Congress is slow to act but this is where the hearings and investigations happened,” he said, “This isn’t a spur of the moment impulsive decision.”

The U.S. government is frustrating to deal with but this is an amazing example of a complicated issue moving through each branch of the government and showcasing what each branch’s responsibility should be
Wyatt Hunter, a political science senior from Colorado

Bytedance plans to take this to court, and if the Supreme Court rules it as unconstitutional, the issue will be closed, explained Hunter. “The U.S. government is frustrating to deal with but this is an amazing example of a complicated issue moving through each branch of the government and showcasing what each branch’s responsibility should be,” he said.