The Biden administration has given Chinese company ByteDance an ultimatum: sell its popular video-sharing app TikTok, or be banned nationwide.
TikTok has not yet indicated whether it will sell, but has attempted to persuade US officials that it can address security concerns and meet the level of scrutiny it proposed. TikTok’s CEO has argued that the ban will not address security concerns.
But what would the ban mean for consumers? Is there any precedent for such restriction?
NBC News spoke with four people who have studied cybersecurity, national security and technology policy, who offered some ideas for how the TikTok ban might work.
How will the ban work?
It is not clear how the US will impose sanctions. The White House’s best chance to do so will probably come from a bill introduced last week by a bipartisan group of senators that has strong White House support.
While the senators behind the bill pitch it as a way to potentially ban TikTok, it’s unclear how that would happen. It would give the Secretary of Commerce a broad power to ban foreign technology in cases in which the US believed it posed a threat to national security. However, how that right would be wielded is still a matter of debate. A spokeswoman for the Commerce Department declined to discuss how the agency is considering that power.
The easiest mechanism for the government to enforce the ban would be to ban app stores from making TikTok available for download, A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation, Darrell M. West said. The app may lose functionality over time.
“If there’s a ban, there certainly won’t be any more updates and software enhancements, and over time, those apps will become harder to use,” West said.
Ahmad Gappour, a law professor at Boston University, said that the use of TikTok could potentially be criminal as well, resulting in fines. This has been done in the past with other banned software that was flagged as a national security threat. Although he added that no such software has been “as mainstream as TikTok”.
Can I still use TikTok?
Perhaps. The ban on the App Store will leave the app intact on phones where it has already been downloaded. Theoretically, those apps will still be running. West said that the government cannot force people to remove the app.
There’s uncertainty about what the app will look like for those grandfathered — if existing users can log in and still access the video-sharing and browsing capabilities.
But the US could theoretically go further than this by forcing internet providers to block the app.
India is the biggest country to ban TikTok outright, having blocked dozens of mostly Chinese apps in 2020. Soon after the ban, India’s Department of Telecommunications ordered internet and wireless service providers to block the app, TikTok.
Soon after, some TikTok users in India said that the app no longer had any functionality.
Has the US ever banned any app?
The US has never issued a comprehensive ban on any app. TikTok has been the subject of a variety of minor bans.
Many public universities have restricted access to social media apps from school-owned devices and campus Wi-Fi networks, and states have prohibited government-issued devices from downloading the apps.
US forced sale of an app. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) regularly reviews foreign-owned companies to determine whether their businesses and transactions pose a threat to national security.
In 2019, CFIUS forced a Chinese company to divest ownership of the dating app Grindr.
Can I use a VPN to access TikTok?
If the US moves to block the app completely, there is a possibility that the use of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) may provide access to the app.
Virtual private networks are services that allow users to redirect their Internet connections through other networks. They are often used to avoid certain types of Internet censorship.
“Virtual networks are what allow people to access Western applications,” West said. Americans can use it to access TikTok. He said the ban would be difficult to enforce, as there are always loopholes.
Nevertheless, the government may target VPN access in order to make the ban effective. Authorities “could ban VPN use or force VPN companies to blacklist sites they won’t allow traffic to flow through,” Gappour said.
Other experts said there may be solutions to the ban, but they may not be sustainable due to the popularity of the app.
“There really will be no way to circumvent the ban. The market is huge,” said Eli Rostoum, a political scientist and lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Talking who uses Tiktok.”
Does the ban mean my data is secure?
This won’t happen.
“The ban doesn’t solve TikTok’s major problem, which is the transfer of data,” Rostoum said. “There will be another company owned by a Chinese company that can transfer data.”
Other experts agreed.
“TikTok is just the tip of the iceberg,” said James Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Many products have Chinese software.”
Beyond data privacy concerns with Chinese-owned companies, There is no comprehensive federal data privacy law in the US, and data brokers freely buy and sell users’ data with little oversight. And TikTok’s access to user information isn’t unique — most smartphone apps collect data from users’ phones.