Understanding the TikTok Ban: Implications and Questions

1. Is it a Ban?

The recent mandate from the United States to TikTok presents a stark ultimatum: sell the company or face closure. ByteDance, the Chinese parent company, now has nine months to make a decision. Here are the key questions surrounding what may unfold.

Is it a Prohibition?
Not necessarily. ByteDance could opt to sell the application to a US-based company, maintaining the status quo. However, this is unlikely as TikTok asserts that the new legislation constitutes a ban and intends to challenge it in court. According to TikTok’s statement, “This unconstitutional law is a ban on TikTok, and we will challenge it in court.” Should this occur, the Supreme Court will need to determine whether the law violates the platform’s and its users’ freedom of expression, a delicate matter in the US.

Legal proceedings could extend the initial nine-month timeline, potentially delaying significant developments until 2024. With elections scheduled for November, the stance towards TikTok may evolve, especially considering former President Trump’s prior attempts to ban the platform in 2020.

2. Impact on Global Users

What About Non-US Users?
If you reside outside the US, the mandate will not directly affect you. However, TikTok without its purported 170 million US users would undoubtedly alter the platform’s dynamics. Not only would this affect the content created and consumed, but also the emergence of trends and challenges driven by the platform’s primary market. While some prominent users might relocate to countries like Canada or Mexico, such a shift seems improbable if the platform loses its core US user base.

3. Circumventing the Ban?

Are There Workarounds to Continue Using TikTok in the US?
No. Apple and Google would need to remove the app from their stores, effectively halting updates. Additionally, internet service providers would be required to restrict access. While using a VPN is a common method to access content as if in another country, bypassing app stores poses significant challenges beyond the capabilities of most users.

4. Winners in the Face of Potential Ban

Who Stands to Gain from the Potential Ban?
In one word, Zuckerberg. If any platform resembles TikTok today, it’s Instagram and its Reels feature, essentially a copycat. While replicating TikTok’s success may prove challenging for many influencers on Reels, there are few alternatives. Reels’ exponential growth, already representing 50% of user time spent on Instagram, signifies a remarkable shift for an app initially centered around photos. YouTube’s Shorts, another contender, offers short-form video content, but its content differs substantially from TikTok’s. Despite their differences, all three platforms share the commonality of vertical video formats.

5. Impact on User Behavior

Does the Threat Prompt Users to Reconsider Their Relationship with the App?
The lack of a clear alternative and the non-immediate nature of the threat may lead TikTok users to continue using the platform as usual. However, certain content creators, particularly those with more to lose, may diversify their efforts across other platforms in preparation for a potential ban.

6. The Why Behind the Ban

But Why?
National security is the primary justification. Proponents of the legislation argue that TikTok provides a platform where American users are more likely to encounter content depicting Chinese cities in a positive light, while negative narratives such as the repression of Uighurs or representations of the American Dream are relatively scarce. While such propaganda alone wouldn’t warrant a ban, TikTok has become a significant source of information for Western citizens. Notably, Biden’s campaign maintains a prominent presence on TikTok.

In the event of a conflict over Taiwan, could China pressure TikTok to promote or conceal certain types of videos? Or to interfere in highly contested US presidential elections, such as those upcoming in November? This year, amidst the conflict in Gaza, rumors circulated—albeit lacking conclusive evidence—that TikTok featured more pro-Palestinian content than pro-Israeli. This controversy, acknowledged by many congressmen when voting on the legislation, underscores the platform’s potential influence. While the US government hasn’t provided evidence of TikTok’s platform manipulation, some congressmen have hinted at intriguing confidential material. China has long barred US companies from its market; Google, Facebook, and Instagram remain absent. Recently, Apple quietly removed WhatsApp and Threads from its Chinese store, citing “national security concerns.”

7. Alternative Solutions

Are There Alternatives?
There are always alternatives. The Chinese government claims veto authority over TikTok’s secret sauce—the algorithm that adeptly predicts user preferences. Recent reports suggest TikTok may consider selling the app without its algorithm, essentially offering the brand and audience sans its defining feature. This proposition resembles purchasing Coca-Cola without its formula.

TikTok launched the “Texas Project” alongside Oracle, aiming to ensure that US user data remains on domestic servers. However, this initiative hasn’t assuaged concerns. If China sought access to US user data, an unregulated advertising market provides ample opportunities to obtain desired information.

8. Severity of the Situation

Is the Situation as Dire as it Seems?
Yes and no. India, with 200 million TikTok users, swiftly banned the app amid tensions with China on the border. This move, driven more explicitly by national security concerns, resulted in a significant migration of users to platforms like Reels, with many others simply abandoning short-form video platforms altogether. Afghanistan and Pakistan have also imposed restrictions, with various other countries limiting app downloads among government officials.

9. Connection to TikTok Lite in Europe

Does TikTok Lite in Europe Play a Role?
No. The European Commission’s concerns with the Chinese giant revolve around TikTok Lite, an app tested in Spain and France. The app rewards users with small sums for watching videos or inviting others, raising concerns about its potential addictiveness and danger to minors. Brussels has requested TikTok to certify its compliance with regulations, but discussions are ongoing. Meanwhile, TikTok has suspended activity on the new app.

In conclusion, the mandate targeting TikTok encapsulates complex geopolitical dynamics, highlighting the intersection of national security, technological innovation, and global influence. As stakeholders navigate this landscape, the ramifications of the impending decisions will reverberate far beyond the digital realm, shaping the future of international relations and digital governance.