For years, TikTok has attempted to dodge the crosshairs of the increasingly tech-skeptical U.S. government. Now, the app’s luck may be running out as it experiences its most pronounced backlash yet.
At the ground level, the megapopular short-form video platform is losing favor among the very creatives it once helped boost. Musicians and label executives are frustrated with the marketing and revenue challenges posed by the app’s disruptive nature (as well as the types of music that benefit most), while influencers grow wary of constant outrage cycles, young users face heightened dangers from the app’s increasingly dark challenges and trends, and researchers increasingly uncover data-privacy issues.
That last aspect has long been a talking point for politicians concerned about TikTok’s China-based parent company. Now, it’s prompted long-anticipated governmental crackdowns. As of this week, seven U.S. states—Alabama, Utah, Maryland, Nebraska, South Dakota, South Carolina, and Texas—have outlawed employees from downloading the app onto state-owned devices, in a manner similar to the military’s 2020 ban of TikTok use on government-issued phones. The Indiana government hasn’t followed suit just yet, but its attorney general has filed two lawsuits against TikTok “for deceiving users about China’s access to their data and for exposing children to mature content.”
And the federal government, which has struggled to figure out just how to tackle this conundrum, may be close to drastic action. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a flagrant “China hawk” and TikTok opponent, introduced legislation on Tuesday to fully expel the app from the U.S. along with other Chinese-owned social media platforms; it quickly earned bipartisan buy-in. On Wednesday night, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution introduced by Republican Josh Hawley to forbid federal employees from using TikTok on any government-owned devices. It’s not the first time TikTok has faced an uncertain future within the U.S., but it may be the most serious. In addition to all the state-level restrictions, the FBI’s director has called TikTok a national security threat, and an FCC commissioner has asked Apple and Google to remove the platform from their app stores altogether. And the House of Representatives’ chief administrative officer issued a “cyber advisory” recommending against “the download or use of this application due to these security and privacy concerns.”
TikTok has always been on shaky ground within the U.S. (and internationally). Before now, its most serious governmental threat arrived back in 2020, when the Trump administration announced that domestic users would no longer be able to download TikTok if its parent company, Bytedance, didn’t sell the app to a U.S.-based firm. But that order was nullified by the judiciary, and Donald Trump seemed to forget about TikTok after he lost his reelection bid, perhaps because he had other schemes in mind. At any rate, President Joe Biden axed Trump’s order shortly after taking power, and went on to court TikTok influencers for publicity’s sake (though he forbade his 2020 campaign staffers from using the app in either a professional or personal capacity).
Yet in light of news reports concerning Chinese access to American users’ data, as well as a national tough-on-China agenda, the Biden administration has negotiated with TikTok to work out policy that could reduce security risks. The two parties reached a preliminary agreement in September that would require the app to store American user data on stateside servers, delegate oversight of TikTok feed algorithm to the software company Oracle, and convene a board of security experts who’d ensure compliance.
The deal hasn’t gone into effect yet, likely for one big reason: TikTok hawks don’t think this goes far enough. They want to force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a U.S. company. This isn’t just partisan rebuttal: Anti-TikTok sentiment among some lawmakers is so strong that in 2020, some of Trump’s closest allies didn’t even think his order went far enough. Sen. Josh Hawley, in particular, wished for the Trump administration to impose trade restrictions on ByteDance as a whole, while Marco Rubio wanted investigations into how TikTok collects user data in general. To such dissenters, simply taking TikTok away from a Chinese company was far from sufficient; more had to be done to increase transparency regarding TikTok’s algorithm and data storage. Biden’s deal, which preserves ByteDance ownership with some caveats, isn’t going to please these guys—the app already has made internal changes in staffing and content moderation processes, and that hasn’t quelled the vitriol. Not to mention, countries like the United Kingdom are also pursuing investigations into the app’s data practices.
The clamor has built up across a yearslong timeline, and it likely won’t go away until someone brings down a hammer. The “China hawks,” with their wildly named legislation (“Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act”), appear to be gathering steam for their preferred solution: to ban the thing outright, regardless of who owns it. If TikTok continues to delay negotiations or insist that it’s safe in the face of contradictory evidence, it could lose its largest user base—and a lot of cultural influence.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.
Update, Dec. 15, 2022: This piece has been updated with details on the passage of the Senate resolution barring TikTok use on government devices.