"Banning" TikTok is pointless political theater — and it's impossible anyway

Does anybody in D.C. understand that the government doesn't control the internet? There are no good answers

By Rae Hodge

Staff Reporter

Published February 28, 2023 5:45AM (EST)

TikTok logo on a smartphone with an American and Chinese flag background. (Photo illustration by Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
TikTok logo on a smartphone with an American and Chinese flag background. (Photo illustration by Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Calls to ban TikTok, the social media app famous for teen dance routines and karaoke versions of pop hits, on all devices in the U.S. are growing in intensity among both Democrats and Republicans. On Monday, President Biden gave government agencies 30 days to make sure they've removed TikTok from all their devices. Now lawmakers on Capitol Hill are rumored to be moving legislation ahead that would allow the president to ban TikTok across the board. Meanwhile, a growing number of U.S. states have banned the app on public employee and school-issued devices, mirroring official-device TikTok bans in the EU and Canada

But here's the thing: banning TikTok from every American's personal device isn't just politically implausible and constitutionally dubious — unless lawmakers want to destroy access to the free internet — it's also technologically impossible. 

See, the internet doesn't belong to the government 

Anticipating escalated political threats to its business model, TikTok parent company ByteDance recently offered the U.S. press an unimpressive bit of data privacy theater. It's undeniable that among apps that actually reveal the extent of their user data collection, TikTok is one of the most privacy-averse

But it's by no means the only offender, nor is it the worst. That much was pointed out by Bruce Schneier, cybersecurity legend and Harvard Kennedy School lecturer, and by USC computer science professor Barath Raghavan.

"Many apps you use do the same, including Facebook and Instagram, along with seemingly innocuous apps that have no need for the data," they wrote in an essay for Foreign Policy published last Friday. "Your data is bought and sold by data brokers you've never heard of who have few scruples about where the data ends up. They have digital dossiers on most people in the United States."

"If we want to address the real problem, we need to enact serious privacy laws, not security theater, to stop our data from being collected, analyzed, and sold — by anyone."

Sure, lawmakers could hit TikTok where it hurts — with punishing financial penalties. But what members of Congress (and a lot of other folks) may not understand is this: You can't actually ban popular apps in a globally connected internet environment. At least not without breaking the internet as we know it.

At best, lawmakers could ban Google and Apple from hosting the app in their marketplaces (more below on the latest bills aimed at doing this). But Google and Apple aren't the internet. Sideloading apps — or downloading them straight from their makers — is already as common as breathing for most Android users, and increasingly common among the iPhone-jailbreaker set. The only thing an app-store ban would accomplish is greater security risks for users, who wouldn't have access to automatic security updates and might be more easily lured into downloading malicious copycat apps.

But couldn't they ban TikTok's website in the U.S.? Ha, no. The federal government has no technological power to enforce that, beyond the sort of wrist-slap letters you may have received after downloading an album or two. TikTok users would need to take an additional minute or so to download a VPN before going back to TikTok, nominally as a user from Estonia or Bhutan or Greenland. 

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Even with an unenforceable ban and app-store removals, there's no way the government can remove software that you've already installed on your phone. At least, not without joining the list of authoritarian countries that use the kind of internet censorship and surveillance software produced in — wait for it! — China. That list already includes China, of course (with its "Great Firewall"), along with Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, the UAE, Turkey and India. 

Meet the congressional security-theater actors' guild

Of course, the members of Congress calling for a nationwide TikTok ban either don't understand all this fine print or simply don't care. 

"The European Commission has banned TikTok from staff phones. America and Europe must stand united against the threat of Communist China and ban TikTok from all phones," Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., tweeted Monday. 

"A big Chinese balloon in the sky and millions of Chinese TikTok balloons on our phones. Let's shut them all down," Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said in a Feb. 3 tweet.

In January, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo, and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo, filed the "No TikTok on United States Devices Act" bill. 

You can't actually ban popular apps in a globally connected internet marketplace, no matter how many laws you pass or how hard you close your eyes and wish you could.

"TikTok poses a threat to all Americans who have the app on their devices. It opens the door for the Chinese Communist Party to access Americans' personal information, keystrokes, and location through aggressive data harvesting," Hawley said in a statement. "Banning it on government devices was a step in the right direction, but now is the time to ban it nationwide to protect the American people."

This month a Democratic senator, Michael Bennet of Colorado, joined the chorus calling on Google and Apple to remove TikTok from Play and the App Store. Just 10 days later, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that a nationwide TikTok ban was "something that should be looked at." 

If you're just tuning into the federal TikTok battles, none of this is new. We had a year-long back-and-forth between U.S. officials and TikTok administrators in 2022, including these high points: 

In July of last year, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., sent a letter to the FTC urging an immediate agency investigation into TikTok. Just before that, Senate Republicans sent Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen a letter, demanding to know what the the Biden administration was doing to protect U.S. data privacy after overturning a 2020 Trump administration order banning the app. And before that, an FCC commissioner had called on Google and Apple to pull TikTok from their app stores. 

All along, TikTok officials and engineers have continued to issue statements denying that they share any U.S. user data with Chinese authorities. After BuzzFeed reported that China had access to some private data on U.S. servers, TikTok moved data to Oracle servers to shore up security.

Back to the present, where Rubio and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, have introduced legislation that would corner ByteDance — the Chinese parent of TikTok — into either selling the app to a U.S.-based company or removing it from U.S. devices.  

"We cannot allow hostile governments to use our social media habits as a Trojan Horse into our networks," King said in a Feb. 10 statement. "The company must either divest from dangerous foreign ownership, or we will take the necessary steps to protect Americans from potential foreign spying and misinformation operations."

Rubio and King's measure goes beyond a TikTok ban: It would grant the president sweeping new powers to block social media companies from "countries of concern," including China, Hong Kong, North Korea, Russia, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and beyond.

Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill, have offered a bipartisan bill aimed at a full ban of TikTok. But Krishnamoorthi, the top Democrat on the House's Select Committee on China, has admitted the measure is unlikely to pass. 

"I don't think it's gonna get banned," he told CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "I think what we're asking for is, you know … don't have that user data and algorithms controlled by an adversarial regime." 

What's the next act of the TikTok pantomime? 

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is slated to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23. The panel will no doubt question TikTok's consumer privacy and data security practices, along with the company's business relationship to the Chinese regime, and (if that isn't enough to unpack in a single hearing) the app's impact on children. 

In a statement ahead of the meeting, Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said her aim was "asking Big Tech CEOs — from Facebook to Twitter to Google — to answer for their companies' actions." 

TikTok has largely kept repeating what a company spokesperson told the Hill in January: 

"The Chinese Communist Party has neither direct nor indirect control of ByteDance or TikTok. Moreover, under the proposal we have devised with our country's top national security agencies through CFIUS, that kind of data sharing — or any other form of foreign influence over the TikTok platform in the United States—would not be possible." 

Chuck Schumer has tried to sound tough but noncommittal, telling reporters he'll wait to hear from Chew before weighing in on a nationwide ban. 

"There's a company called ByteDance, which owns TikTok, which we think has a relationship with the Chinese government," Schumer said earlier this month.  "But we've got to check it out before we do anything."

By Rae Hodge

Rae Hodge is a science reporter for Salon. Her data-driven, investigative coverage spans more than a decade, including prior roles with CNET, the AP, NPR, the BBC and others. She can be found on Mastodon at @raehodge@newsie.social. 


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