You wouldn’t believe it due to its ubiquity, but TikTok is in trouble.
The short-form video app logs on to more than one-eighth of the world’s population every month, but that popularity has led to intense scrutiny that the app may not withstand for much longer.
And with breaking news today that the UK will ban TikTok on government phones with immediate effect, a move that follows other western countries in banning the Chinese video app over security concerns, the writing is on the wall.
The reasons are well rehearsed. TikTok combines the usual well-founded fears about social media safety (the rapid spread of disinformation and harmful content in a time-consuming package) with national security fears surrounding possible Chinese government involvement.
This has led to something of a standoff between lawmakers and ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, for years. But now things seem to be coming to a head, and what happens over the next few weeks could sink an app that has topped the App Store’s download charts for half a decade.
Will TikTok be banned?
The UK’s adoption of online safety law could cause problems for TikTok, but that’s a small fish compared to the global picture.
TikTok’s app has already been banned from government phones in the EU and US. The UK government has just confirmed a similar ban “with immediate effect”.
The Biden administration is “demanding” that Bytedance sell TikTok or face a national ban under the new legislation
While it’s safe to say that this won’t hurt TikTok’s usage stats too much, the message is clear: Western governments deem the app dangerous, and if they do, then it’s logical that further consumer bans will be considered could .
Indeed, the United States has taken the lead here, introducing legislation earlier this month that would give the US Department of Commerce the power to “ban foreign-based technology if it poses a national security threat.”
How would the US ban TikTok?
The latest clue is that the United States is preparing to go tough. A Wall Street Journal report, confirmed by TikTok to Reuters, says the Biden administration is “demanding” that Bytedance sell TikTok or face a national ban under the new legislation.
In such circumstances, it would be fairly easy to remove the app from Google Play and Apple App Store, but given the huge install base, that’s closing the stable door after the horse bolts.
The government would then have to work with operators to block access to TikTok’s servers. A VPN could get around that easily enough, but then it becomes a numbers game: are enough people interested in TikTok to install a VPN? If not, western-friendly content dies on the vine and people lose interest anyway.
Is TikTok safe for now?
The good news for TikTok is that despite the saber-rattling, this is far from a given.
TikTok has resisted presidential pressure in the past. Former President Trump tried to force the sale of TikTok, but ByteDance stood firm. And while the threat of a US nationwide ban is more real than ever, it must overcome many hurdles if it is to become law.
Count Capital Alpha Partners — the strategic policy research and forecasting firm — is among the skeptics. “We do not expect TikTok to be banned, and the Warner Act does not require a ban,” the company wrote in a press release earlier this month, citing a lack of approval from key stakeholders and the shared control of Congress.
“We see President Biden attempting to place TikTok under strict data security protocols,” the press release continued. “From our point of view he could have already applied for a ban, but he didn’t. Also, if there were consensus in Congress to ban TikTok, we believe that would have happened already.”
The same hurdles apply in the UK. An app ban here would involve drafting a bill to go to the House of Commons. This would be debated and voted on in several stages. It would then go to the House of Lords for a vote before receiving royal assent, at which point it would become law.
With Science and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan beating down the prospect of a UK government ban on TikTok just two weeks ago – a ban that has just come into force – it seems unlikely ministers could agree for long enough to make a UK nationwide ban a reality.