TikTok Ban Creates a Capitol Hill Catch-22

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Variety Intelligence Platform

Like the rest of us, TikTok has had a chaotic 2020.

There’s growing momentum on Capitol Hill to ban its video-sharing social media service in the U.S. Over the past month, three high-ranking U.S. officials, most notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have hinted that the Trump administration is considering banning TikTok over its data-collection practices and fears that this information could be shared with the Chinese government. 

TikTok was banned in India, where it counted over 200 million users, in late June over data collection concerns. A few weeks later in the U.S., esports superstar Ninja chimed in to denounce TikTok over “data farming” concerns on Twitter to his over 6 million followers. Then news of security-motivated Wells Fargo and Amazon company bans on TikTok broke shortly after (though the latter company walked it back). 

It’s clear there’s growing consumer concern about how TikTok handles data, which isn’t helped by the fact that its parent Bytedance is headquartered in Beijing.

A ruling that somehow prevented all U.S. users from accessing TikTok would be a huge blow for Bytedance. TikTok is easily one of the most popular social apps in the U.S., which has the world’s largest ad market. The service in 2020 is anticipated to generate $500 million in the U.S. alone, according to The Information. 

But even though anti-TikTok discourse on Capitol Hill is getting louder, an outright sweeping ban on the social video platform to all U.S. consumers is far from guaranteed. 

For one, it’s still not clear TikTok is doing exactly what Pompeo & Co. allege and fear most. The evidence pointing to TikTok being a national security risk has yet to be seen.

Additionally, although it’s acknowledged that TikTok does vacuum up such information as your IP address and location (with your permission), Facebook does this as well, as pointed out by tech analyst Ben Thompson. 

But removing TikTok from the competitive social app market also seems counterproductive for the U.S. government’s aim of keeping in check the powers of traditional big tech giants like Facebook and Twitter, which would no doubt benefit if U.S. consumers could no longer spend time making TikToks. 

Instagram’s TikTok competitor, Reels, which will begin testing in the U.S. in a few weeks, could swoop in and onboard former TikTok users, for example. 

TikTok had 50 million daily users in the U.S. as of early 2020, according to The Information. Compare that with the 33 million and 195 million Twitter and Facebook reported having at the end of March. 

TikTok advocates might argue that cutting off U.S. access to the Bytedance-owned video app would only concentrate attention within a smaller select few U.S. companies, potentially boosting the potential damage a Facebook or Twitter could do to users or advertisers because there are fewer alternatives. 

Also keep in mind that U.S. law has no precedent for blocking TikTok in a similar fashion to how India has banned the app (ISPs are blocking access to the app). The fact that TikTok is a type of software suggests any attempts to ban may face legal challenges invoking free speech, according to Fortune. 

Which is why Capitol Hill has a catch-22 on its hands. 

Getting rid of TikTok would enrage many Americans that aren’t convinced of the shadowy allegations against the app, and might even be seen as unconstitutional. Broadly blocking users from using TikTok would strengthen the companies that are getting grilled next week over antitrust concerns. 

But letting TikTok just be would, in Mike Pompeo’s eyes, continue leaving U.S. data vulnerable to “the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.”

However, that catch-22 situation discounts the difficulties in getting clearance to carry out such a sweeping ban, which many outlets besides us have suggested already seems not in the cards. 

Because of such difficulties, the “ban TikTok” movement is likely to lead to TikTok’s life becoming much harder in other ways, which is already playing out (see: Lawmakers on Monday voted to bar federal employees from downloading TikTok on government-issued devices).

Expect similar gradual moves that chip away at TikTok’s reach in the future. For example, many have pointed to potential action from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which prevented Chinese gaming company Kunlun from purchasing gay dating app Grindr in 2019.

TikTok chief Kevin Mayer and Bytedance will get creative to deal with further potential action from the government. The Information on Tuesday reported that existing U.S. shareholders of Bytedance have discussed with Bytedance purchasing a majority stake in TikTok as a way to deal with mounting government pressure.

But in the end, a near-term sweeping action that cuts off U.S. consumers’ access to TikTok seems as likely as “Tenet” debuting at an AMC theater in the immediate offing. 

As in, probably not gonna happen.