US government gives TikTok an ultimatum, warning of ban

The Biden administration warned TikTok's owners to sell their stakes, while the UK banned the app from government devices.
Smartphone with TikTok brand logo resting on laptop laptop keyboard
TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, faces increasing pressure from the US and the UK to distance itself from China. Deposit Photos

The heat is truly on for short video app TikTok in both the US and abroad following months of political posturing and threats. On Thursday, The Wall Street Journal first reported that the Biden administration has issued an unofficial ultimatum to the popular social media app’s Chinese owners—sell your stock shares, or face a wholesale app ban in the US. Meanwhile, the UK moved forward on Thursday with blacklisting TikTok from all government devices, citing security concerns.

The latest domestic pressures come after a consistent torrent of criticisms from US lawmakers against TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. Among others, Sens. John Thune (R, SD) and Mark Warner (D, VA) allege that China-based owners ostensibly can’t be trusted with access to their millions of American users’ data. Although it is true both ByteDance’s owners and TikTok itself have been shown to engage in questionable and outright illegal practices in the past, critics of the ban say this is nothing but a deflection from the larger issues at hand—namely, consumers’ overall digital privacy safeguards across the entire spectrum of online life and social media platforms.

[Related: Why some US lawmakers want to ban TikTok.]

“If it weren’t so alarming, it would be hilarious that US policymakers are trying to ‘be tough on China’ by acting exactly like the Chinese government,” recently argued Evan Greer, director of the privacy advocacy group, Fight for the Future, in a statement. Greer also added that, “Banning an entire app used by millions of people, especially young people, LGBTQ folks, and people of color, is classic state-backed Internet censorship.”

Greer and others concede that while TikTok may pose some security risks for users, so does virtually every other major social media platform collecting massive troves of data for targeted advertising, branding, and consumer profiles. Even if TikTok were banned, Greer says, ByteDance could hypothetically still access much of the same data by buying it from data brokers, given that there are few laws in place to protect American consumers from this kind of strategy. Earlier this month, David Greene, civil liberties director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told PopSci that American lawmakers “can’t just be responding to undifferentiated fear, or to uninvestigated or unproven concerns, or at the worst, xenophobia.”

[Related: Hackers could be selling your Twitter data for the lowball price of $2.]

Instead, anti-ban advocates continue to urge Congress to pass a universal data protection legislation, much like what the European Union did back in 2018 with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This regulation, which has affected companies such as Google and Amazon, most recently cost Facebook’s owners at Meta $275 million for a massive data leak in 2021.

Meanwhile, actually enacting such a targeted ban on TikTok could prove difficult to enforce, says Greer. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union released a letter urging politicians to reconsider their stance on the issue while warning that blacklisting the app could violate First Amendment rights.