Tick-Tock, TikTok

The Biden administration has dragged its feet on restricting the Chinese-owned app, but pressure is building for far more drastic measures.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office in Culver City, California.
The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office in Culver City, California.
The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office in Culver City, California, on Dec. 20. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The drumbeat against TikTok grows louder by the day. More than a dozen U.S. states including Georgia, Texas, Maryland, Virginia, and both Dakotas have already banned the popular social media app—best known for short videos and viral dances—from being used on state government devices. A similar ban for federal government devices is part of the omnibus spending bill that passed Congress on Friday, and bipartisan legislation introduced earlier this month calls for TikTok to be banned in the United States completely. 

Further warnings about the app have come from Brendan Carr, a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, and several members of the intelligence community, including the directors of the FBI and CIA

The debate centers on TikTok’s ownership by Chinese tech giant ByteDance and the degree to which the government in Beijing has access to and influence over the data it collects on its users. Critics of TikTok argue that the app could be used to spy on Americans, influence public opinion, and expose them to Chinese propaganda. 

The drumbeat against TikTok grows louder by the day. More than a dozen U.S. states including Georgia, Texas, Maryland, Virginia, and both Dakotas have already banned the popular social media app—best known for short videos and viral dances—from being used on state government devices. A similar ban for federal government devices is part of the omnibus spending bill that passed Congress on Friday, and bipartisan legislation introduced earlier this month calls for TikTok to be banned in the United States completely. 

Further warnings about the app have come from Brendan Carr, a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission, and several members of the intelligence community, including the directors of the FBI and CIA

The debate centers on TikTok’s ownership by Chinese tech giant ByteDance and the degree to which the government in Beijing has access to and influence over the data it collects on its users. Critics of TikTok argue that the app could be used to spy on Americans, influence public opinion, and expose them to Chinese propaganda. 

TikTok’s algorithm, which serves its users videos better suited to their interests and has driven the app’s popularity, collects data on users’ likes and dislikes based on viewing patterns. It also has data on the devices being used to view its videos, with recent research showing it can potentially access details such as location, contacts, and calendars. While some of the data TikTok collects is no different from other platforms that rely on ad tracking, such as Google and Facebook, TikTok’s ownership heightens the risk that China’s authoritarian government could compel it to share data with Beijing on users from other countries. (TikTok, for its part, has said it does not share data with the Chinese government and would not do so if asked.)

In any event, targets abound: An estimated 100 million Americans, particularly younger Americans, use the app, with a survey earlier this year by Pew Research placing it second in popularity to YouTube among U.S. teenagers, ahead of Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook. 

The concerns aren’t new. Then-President Donald Trump went after TikTok aggressively on similar national security grounds, nearly forcing a ban from U.S. app stores before he lost his reelection bid in 2020 to President Joe Biden. After Biden took office, he dropped the ban in favor of continuing a national security review of TikTok’s technology by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is yet to conclude. 

“We have been working with CFIUS, led by the Treasury Department, for over two years to address all reasonable national security concerns about TikTok in the U.S.,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement to Foreign Policy, adding that CFIUS is reviewing a “comprehensive solution” that covers data security, corporate governance, and content moderation. “We have made substantial progress on implementing that solution over the past year, and look forward to completing that work to put these concerns to rest,” she said.

In the meantime, TikTok has only grown in influence and popularity. Several companies, celebrities, news outlets, and even politicians (including Biden himself) have used its enormous influence among younger Americans to increase the reach of their messaging. 

“I think the Biden administration’s worried. … There’s just too many users,” said Nazak Nikakhtar, who served as the Department of Commerce’s lead on CFIUS in the Trump administration and was involved in its efforts to ban the app. “The teenagers are going to pretty much revolt” if it’s banned across the board, she said.

But after a prolonged lull, the conversation around TikTok has collided with a growing bipartisan hawkishness on China—particularly around technology—and the pressure to do something is increasingly difficult to withstand. The legislation could not only end up banning one of the world’s biggest tech platforms in one of its most lucrative markets but also deepen a rapidly growing schism between Washington and Beijing on technology. The fact that TikTok’s U.S. user base accounts for roughly one-third of the population would make an outright ban something of a political tightrope. As past U.S. moves against Chinese technology such as 5G and semiconductors have shown, the effect on TikTok’s business, if allies decided to follow suit, could be immense. TikTok has more than a billion users worldwide. 

TikTok hasn’t done much to help its cause. While the company has made efforts to shore up its protection of U.S. user data, including a commitment to route all the data through servers run by U.S. tech firm Oracle, it has also admitted that the data can be accessed by employees in China. A bigger breach came to light this week, when ByteDance revealed it had fired four employees—two each in the United States and China—for using TikTok data to surveil journalists who were covering the company. 

“The misconduct of certain individuals, who are no longer employed at ByteDance, was an egregious misuse of their authority to obtain access to user data,” Oberwetter said. “This misbehavior is unacceptable, and not in line with our efforts across TikTok to earn the trust of our users.”

TikTok’s sympathizers in Washington, however, are dwindling in number.

“This has been brought on by TikTok, not by the U.S. government,” said Junaid Islam, a cybersecurity and secure communications expert and partner at security advisory firm OODA. While TikTok insists that it is not beholden to the Chinese government, the fact that the company has still not made more of an effort to completely wall off its data from China raises the question of its “ulterior motives,” Islam said.

There are other experts, however, who say the campaign against TikTok is motivated more by political considerations than security ones, arguing that the social media app is no different than U.S. counterparts such as Facebook or Snapchat in simply trying to make money through advertising. 

“I think what people don’t seem to understand is that TikTok is not an organ of the Communist Party, and it is a fallacy to continually repeat the fact that any Chinese company is, in fact, indistinguishable from the state and has no purpose other than to advance the political and military objectives of the Chinese government when it’s obviously a commercial company,” said Milton Mueller, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Public Policy. “It’s interested in selling advertising and needs to be looked at in that way.” 

Mueller advocates a more measured approach, such as using existing U.S. privacy laws and ensuring TikTok is in compliance with them. “It is a personal privacy issue, not a national security issue,” he said. TikTok has employed a similar approach in its criticism of the calls for a ban.

We’re disappointed that Congress has moved to ban TikTok on government devices—a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests—rather than encouraging the administration to conclude its national security review,” Oberwetter said, also criticizing the state governments that have individually banned TikTok as “jumping on the political bandwagon … based on unfounded falsehoods.”

With more China hawks circling by the day, however, it remains to be seen how long the Biden administration can slow-walk its response—and whether the platform’s days in the United States are genuinely numbered. 

“I don’t know why it hasn’t happened yet,” Islam said, referring to the security agreement between TikTok and the U.S. government. “But too much time has passed.”

Rishi Iyengar is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Iyengarish

Anusha Rathi is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @anusharathi_

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.