We don’t see a whole lot of bipartisanship in Washington, D.C., these days. But there is one area where something of a bipartisan consensus is seemingly forming: the push to ban TikTok. There’s just one problem: While China hawks in the GOP and establishment Democratic technocrats within the Biden administration both have valid critiques of TikTok, their push to ban it outright is deeply flawed.
To be clear, I have no love lost for TikTok: it permanently banned my account without cause or explanation. That said, it still shouldn’t be censored entirely, for both policy and legal reasons.
Here are six reasons the U.S. shouldn’t ban TikTok.
Millions of American users and businesses will suffer
More than 150 million Americans now use TikTok. This includes casual users for whom the app brings daily entertainment, laughter, and learning. But it also includes creators who have invested years of effort and built entire careers around their TikTok following. And it includes countless businesses that have used TikTok to stay afloat during the pandemic or otherwise drive massive amounts of sales and revenue.
The conversation about banning TikTok often breezes past the downsides of a ban, as if all that would be lost is some cute cat videos on peoples’ timelines. In reality, the drastic social, political, and economic fallout of an outright ban on one of the most popular and influential apps in America can hardly be overstated.
A ban can easily be circumvented
It’s not actually apparent that a ban could really stop determined Americans from using TikTok. It wouldn’t be very difficult to use a VPN to access TikTok despite the ban, as is commonly done to access streaming services in restricted locations and TikTok itself in places such as India, where it has been banned. So, while a ban would hamstring law-abiding businesses and legitimate creators from using the app, it probably wouldn’t stop most of TikTok’s dedicated users from using the app anyway.
Less extreme measures can address the legitimate concerns
TikTok critics have legitimate concerns. They’re right that, as its parent company ByteDance is China-based, TikTok could ultimately be forced to turn over data to the Chinese government. And they’re right that TikTok gathers data on its users in a way that’s seemingly more invasive than the already extensive data gathering other social media companies conduct. This does pose serious national security concerns, as China has a history of blackmailing U.S. government employees and engaging in all sorts of nefarious conduct.
However, the U.S. can address these concerns by banning TikTok from government devices, as many states and the federal government have already done. It could even go so far as to prohibit government employees from using TikTok on their personal devices!
Beyond that, the government can investigate TikTok and make its data collection practices known to the public so that if Americans (who don’t work for the government) aren’t comfortable with the level of data that’s being gathered, they can choose to stop using the app.
All of these steps could address the legitimate concerns about TikTok without stripping 150 million Americans of their freedom to engage in one of the world’s most prominent digital forums and marketplaces.
It sets a dangerous precedent
If the U.S. government can ban TikTok despite its widespread popularity for so many millions of Americans, what app will it ban next? While perhaps legitimate in the most extreme cases, “national security” is also an incredibly nebulous and flexible justification for censorship. We don’t need to look any further than the post-9/11 Patriot Act and expansion of mass surveillance to see how sweeping government powers initially granted in response to a legitimate national security threat are eventually expanded far beyond their original purposes. Do we really want to go down that path again?
A ban is partially motivated by crony capitalism
Many of those who are pushing to ban TikTok have sincere concerns. But there is, to some degree, a sinister motivation behind some of the momentum as well. A ban on TikTok would be hugely beneficial to its competitors, such as Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) and YouTube. So, Meta decided to get in the game and hire a GOP-aligned firm to push an (undisclosed) anti-TikTok campaign in the media to increase public distrust in its rival.
That smacks of backroom dealing and crony capitalism. The profit interests of competitors should never be used to set public policy, and, unfortunately, that’s at least part of what’s motivating the current anti-TikTok wave.
A TikTok ban may be unconstitutional
Many critics are warning that any attempt by the U.S. government to completely ban TikTok would violate the First Amendment. After all, the app is, at its core, a platform for ideas and expression.
“Congress must not censor entire platforms and strip Americans of their constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression,” the ACLU warned in a recent statement. “Whether we’re discussing the news of the day, live streaming protests, or even watching cat videos, we have a right to use TikTok and other platforms to exchange our thoughts, ideas, and opinions with people around the country and around the world.”
That said, some in the legal community think a TikTok ban could pass legal muster. The courts would ultimately have to weigh the free speech claim against the government’s national security arguments. At the very least, it’s fair to say that a ban would be on shaky and dubious constitutional territory.
All in all, banning TikTok is a breathtakingly radical idea. Proponents of this move have come nowhere close to justifying the extreme step of depriving half the country of core internet freedom. And there are still solutions we can explore that stop far short of an outright ban on one of the world’s most popular apps.