NEW YORK: The US Congress is on the cusp of approving a nationwide ban on using TikTok on government devices because of perceived security risks – thrusting the hugely popular video-sharing platform into a delicate position over Washington’s ties to China.
After a Senate vote last week, the US House of Representatives could this week adopt a law prohibiting the use of TikTok on the professional phones of civil servants.
The measure would follow bans in nearly 20 US states, where Republicans have led the attack against TikTok, arguing that its ownership by Chinese firm ByteDance makes the app unsafe for Americans.
“The fundamental problem is this...TikTok is owned by ByteDance which is effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” Republican congressman Mike Gallagher explained to CNN on Sunday.
But what has long been a rallying cry for conservatives is becoming increasingly widespread among their Democratic colleagues, to the point that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday she was in favour of putting the draft to a vote this week.
“This is not a political issue between Republicans and Democrats. This is a United States issue that we need to address nationally,” Ryan McDougle, a Republican state senator from Virginia who has been at the forefront of the issue, told AFP.
Another bill, also introduced last week by representatives from both parties, calls for an outright ban on TikTok in the United States, though it does not seem likely to be taken up for a formal vote for now.
No links to Communist Party
TikTok has worked hard to convince US authorities that it is not a threat and that US data is protected and stored on servers located in the United States.
But following media reports, it has also admitted that employees based in China had access to that data, although the company insisted it was under strict and highly limited circumstances.
“We have not been asked for such data from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). We have not provided US user data to the CCP, nor would we if asked,” the company said in a letter to Congress.
Still, TikTok is fighting furiously to appease Washington and is putting all of its hopes in a long-term security deal with the administration of US President Joe Biden that has been under negotiation for two years.
This would be done through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency arm of the US government that assesses the risks of any foreign investment to national security.
A deal would bring “a comprehensive package of measures” and “independent oversight to address concerns about TikTok content recommendation and access to US user data”, the company told AFP in a statement.
The arrangement would be “well beyond what any peer company is doing today”, it added.
But given the growing political pressure, finding common ground with the US government will be difficult, security experts said.
A deal “is going to be tricky”, said Michael Daniel, executive director of the Cyber Threat Alliance, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to cybersecurity.
According to Politico, some in the Biden administration are asking for an outright divestment by ByteDance of TikTok’s US operations, the same position that was held by former president Donald Trump.
The fight over the fate of TikTok could soon become a real problem for users once US Congress passes the government ban and Biden signs it into law.
“People haven’t really considered the potential ripple effect that this will have,” said Karen Freberg, associate professor of strategic communications at the University of Louisville.
In particular, she mentioned “government contractors like Amazon” that may be prompted to align with the obligations placed on the public sector.
TikTok’s most crucial partner in the United States is Oracle, which stores the data of American users, and is also a US government contractor.
And like all major social networks, TikTok derives most of its revenue from advertising.
For Rebecca Long, of the digital marketing agency VisualFizz, the new push against TikTok is “worrying” for advertisers.
While TikTok’s core target audience of under 25 year olds is fairly insensitive to politics, older users “are very aware” of the issues and are ready to act accordingly, Long said.
Freberg warned that “TikTok will always have an asterisk next to its name and companies that work with them will always have to keep that in the back of their minds”.
On TikTok, videos from influencers are already circulating on the subject.
California-based Natalaya Michele is already looking ahead and recommends, in case of a ban, use of a VPN, or virtual private network, a tool that simulates connections from another country.
BryanBoy, a fashion vlogger with millions of followers, was more pessimistic: “If I were you, time to get a new skill.” – AFP