TikTok merchandise.

David Walter Banks / The New York Times

TikTok merchandise.

August 20, 2020

The TikTok Ban: Eliminating a National Security Threat or Limiting Free Speech?

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Over one-tenth of ‘Generation Z’ checks the TikTok app on a daily basis, but Cornell students and other young Americans could lose access to the app as soon as next month if a United States-based buyer fails to materialize.

On Aug. 6, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would prohibit Americans from doing business with ByteDance, the parent company of the rapidly growing social media platform that has increasingly come under fire for its close ties with the Chinese government.

The move comes as lawmakers from both parties have claimed that the app’s Chinese ownership may pose a significant threat to national security. In late July, the House of Representatives voted 336-71 to ban Federal employees from using TikTok on government-issued devices.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said that the app is “subject to Chinese Communist Party laws that may require handing over data to their government. A safe way must be found for TikTok to continue.”

However, John Dombrowski ‘23, a Cornell TikToker with over 2.6 million followers, said that he felt Trump’s decision had little to do with cybersecurity and everything to do with the backlash that his administration has received through the platform.

Some experts and content creators have also criticized Trump’s ban of the app as an attack on free speech, comparing it to censorship similar to that utilized in China.

“I think that banning a social media app that has a large amount of criticism towards [Trump] … is very indicative of a mass attempt at censorship of things he doesn’t like, which is the epitome of anti-Americanism,” Dombrowski said. “I think that it would definitely be a massive infringement on free speech, especially on younger generations.”

A ban of TikTok could also impact American individuals who have made money from gaining popularity on the app.

“When I first heard that the TikTok ban was happening, I thought that I was losing my only source of income,” said Dombrowski. “It definitely affects my ability to attend Cornell because I’m just starting to make money for something that I’ve invested the past year into.”

After seeing recent increases in educational content on TikTok, some people have begun to view the app as an educational and informational resource for Generation Z rather than a platform based solely around entertainment.

“I think that people have this misconception about all of the content that’s being put out … I’ve educated people on the ocean, how to take care of your skin and dangerous marketing practices,” said Dombrowski. “Banning TikTok wouldn’t just have monetary impacts, but would be a huge disservice to education — particularly to youth education.”

Prof. Eli Friedman, industrial and labor relations, was also against banning TikTok due to cybersecurity concerns.

“I think that banning TikTok is probably not the right answer to that,” Friedman said. “Maybe government or regulatory action is the right step to take to ensure that data is stored safely.”

To ensure that any data collected from the app is secure and utilized ethically, TikTok hired Kevin Mayer, a former Disney executive, as CEO in June. In July, the company also launched a “transparency center” where content policy and security experts can virtually tour TikTok’s algorithm and content policies.

But national security experts and prominent politicians express a number of concerns about the Chinese-owned app, one of which being that TikTok may be forced to hand over its user data to the Chinese government based on the country’s national security laws. The app has also been found to have security gaps that allow hackers to gain control of private TikTok accounts. A third, larger concern with TikTok is its potential to limit free speech and influence global conversations on the Internet — the company has been criticized for restricting content on the app that is critical of the Chinese government.

However, according to Prof. Connie Yuan, communication, Trump’s order is rooted primarily in political motivation — not genuine concern over national security.

“From Trump’s perspective, it’s not enough,” Yuan said. “It doesn’t matter who you hire. This is political. Regardless of what you do, they have a political agenda. They will always find an issue as the reason to give an executive order.”

Despite TikTok’s efforts to ensure that ethical data practices are being upheld, Trump stated that the only way to avoid a ban of TikTok would be for Microsoft to bid on the app. Several Microsoft employees have come forward in opposition of the forced sale of TikTok to the multinational technology company, calling it unethical.

Friedman explained another possible reason behind Trump’s decision to ban TikTok and force its sale to Microsoft.

“There’s no question that TikTok is very profitable and has a lot of growth potential,” stated Friedman. “If the U.S. government … forces the sale [of TikTok] to an American company, then they just transferred a potentially very profitable enterprise from a Chinese company to an American company.”

Yuan stated that American companies, too, are likely participating in some of ByteDance’s unethical data practices. She said, “Google is collecting similar information from everyone across the world who has downloaded the Google app, so American companies are doing the same thing.”

Friedman explained the difference between the U.S. and China’s views on data mining and censorship, emphasizing the importance of looking at the development of increasingly scattered visions of technology in the last decade.

“On the one hand, we have the American tech company-led vision, which is more or less laissez-faire. It says that we should have free flow of information and governments should not get involved in regulating the information,” explained Friedman. “The Chinese government has a very different idea … the basic idea there is that governments have national interests and they can enforce those interests on the internet.”

Friedman said that this context is important for the future of free speech because Trump proposing to ban TikTok suggests that the Chinese view of Internet sovereignty is how the Internet should be viewed.

“I think [China] uses its censorship to nefarious ends, but the American version is also not all that appealing,” said Friedman. “It’s not to say that there should be no controls, but the political content of our speech should at least be protected on the Internet.”