Last chance to see? Photo Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
Last week, in a party-line vote, the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to introduce a bill that would give President Biden the power to sanction or ban TikTok. Over the weekend, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner announced that he would work with Republican John Thune to introduce a similar measure in the Senate.
This sudden leap towards a full ban on the platform follows years of debates over how to deal with the rise of the hugely popular Chinese-owned platform, which has been beating its American rivals at its own game since its sudden eruption in 2018. It would be unprecedented. It could also throw the tech industry into chaos.
A total ban faces some political obstacles. Republicans are united in their calls for an outright ban on TikTok, which House Speaker Michael McCaul has called a “spy balloon in your phone.” (Republican Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin opted for “digital fentanyl.”) Democrats are more divided on strategy. Some are susceptible to a ban, but not to this kind of ban; others, including Elizabeth Warren, have suggested treating TikTok through broader, industry-wide regulation. Most are following the Biden administration’s lead in delaying an ongoing investigation into TikTok’s activities by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
Still, it’s worth pondering what TikTok’s sudden disappearance would actually mean. Since Donald Trump’s thwarted attempts in 2020 to shut down the app and force its sale to an American company, the pressure for action has continued to mount; The prospects have become more realistic since he left office. Numerous states have issued their own partial bans restricting the use of TikTok on government hardware and in colleges. Last week, the Biden administration announced that federal agencies had 30 days to remove TikTok from government devices. The US military banned the app for years. Similar limited bans apply in parts of Europe and Canada; In 2020, India banned the app outright as part of a sweeping crackdown on Chinese-owned online services. TikTok — whose parent company ByteDance is headquartered in Beijing — is already friendless in Washington, DC. A more credible attempt at banning is only a major international incident or a presidential election away.
The main animating factor behind the attempt to ban TikTok is the app’s Chinese ownership and its alleged ties to the Chinese government – from this perspective, it’s a national security story. But the broader case against TikTok is well known. It is a social media app that solicits and collects content and personal information from millions of American users who use the app on devices that collect and share information about their locations and other habits. The same users are obviously somehow influenced by the content they come across in the app that delivers them videos through an opaque system. It is loved by many of its users for whom it represents an unprecedented connection to the wider culture. For others, it’s a nightmarish place filled with conspiracies, disturbing content, and various mental health ailments; For a select few, it’s a source of work and a place to quickly find a large audience. Most of the time, it really is a way for people to while away the time with their phones. It’s a thoroughly disturbing and disturbingly appealing approach to the commons, a massive, for-profit enclosure built around amazing areas of human interaction for the purpose of selling ads, that is, apart from the ownership issue, it’s basically not of distinguish Facebook. Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, from which it has ruthlessly siphoned users since 2018 and which in return have shamelessly copied its core functions in vain.
TikTok’s alleged ties to the Chinese government are serious business, but again, the line between TikTok and its domestic competitors isn’t as clear cut as it might seem — the kind of data TikTok could collect and theoretically share with the Chinese government is already available for purchase by a wide range of poorly regulated data brokers courtesy of America’s own technology firms. (The loudest voices against a possible ban come from outside government, and mostly deal with speech and precedent: The ACLU has opposed the House bill on the basis of constitutionality; progressive group Fight for the Future has called it pointless and harmful and advocates it instead for a comprehensive privacy regime for social media.)
Still, a ban has an obvious appeal to lawmakers. The core concern about TikTok — that its parent company is subject to security laws in China that could force it to share user data with the government — is credible and has been backed up by investigative reports. Public opinion about the influence of social media in general has deteriorated somewhat, and taking action against TikTok presents a narratively and legally easier option to do something about Big Tech’s influence, at least compared to a basic regulatory approach. Aggressive action against American social media companies would be legally complicated and politically tense; TikTok’s ties to an already-sanctioned government make it easier to split the crusade against it as part of a trade war or as an extraordinary matter of internal relations, rather than something similar American tech companies would otherwise have to worry about.
In practice, however, a ban would be a strange and alien experience for American netizens – much of their daily digital routines would simply be erased from their phones, or at least made much more difficult to access.
The American tech industry would also be breaking new ground. The Chinese government’s use of the Internet was censored from the start. Still, it was accompanied by an aggressive industrial policy aimed at fostering a homegrown technology and internet industry, eventually leading to successful companies like ByteDance. A TikTok ban would be a clumsy step in a similar direction. It could open the door for a native TikTok competitor or pave the way for a different kind of successor, whatever that looks like. (Twitter arguably offered TikTok a chance when it killed Vine, a struggling short-video app that peaked at 100 million users, in 2016.) The economic and political downstream impact would be immediate, large, and no easier to predict than it was TikTok is now (the app’s impact on the American music industry alone was obvious). Countless social media-related jobs would be changed in no time. Some would disappear entirely.
The consequences only get weirder from there. Banning TikTok would act as piecemeal industrial policy. It could bolster American tech giants, many of which are already under obvious federal antitrust scrutiny — TikTok’s success has come at the expense of Meta and has already plunged the company into an existential crisis — as well as more subtle ones: Temu and Shein, two E- Chinese-owned commerce companies, which pose the first credible threat to Amazon in years, owe much of their success to advertising on TikTok and would struggle without it. In other words, it could be a big day for domestic companies, with whom many of the same politicians who want to ban TikTok have also been at war.
Or maybe not? Critics and lawmakers with a narrow focus on “espionage” and “digital espionage” tend to either downplay or genuinely ignore how central TikTok has become to American internet and culture at large. It’s the envy of all of its American competitors in almost every way, and while its disappearance could free up some ad budgets that could be reclaimed from Meta, Google, and Twitter, and certainly create new opportunities for some of them, it might as well easily be one mark an abrupt departure from a particular type of social media company. From the start, TikTok managed to take a maximalist approach to an already dominant style of social media. It was Facebook and Instagram and Vine and Twitter and Snapchat, but more and with less shame – a combination of all known engagement strategies and addictive features in a product so outrageously aggressive and addictive that it defies criticism . Its peers have spent the last five years chasing it and not catching it, often losing their identities as well as their most active users in the process. The success of TikTok sucked the life out of the last era of American social media companies, which were already showing their age, leaving some of their products unrecognizable and sinister. What’s left for TikTok users, should it go away, is a collection of platforms thoroughly reconfigured around TikTok’s existence; his disappearance instead of rescuing them may reveal how badly they are lost.
Above all, a TikTok ban would make for an incredibly weird day online that American netizens would find unbelievable even as it happened. It’s very likely that won’t be the case — among other possibilities, a forced sale to an American company, similar to what happened with dating app Grindr in 2020, could satisfy lawmakers’ needs without drawing as much backlash. But don’t assume that this isn’t possible.
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