You wouldn’t believe it based on its ubiquity, but TikTok is in trouble.
The short-form video app may have over an eighth of the world’s population logging in every month, but such popularity has led to intense scrutiny, which the app may not be able to withstand for too much longer.
And, with today’s breaking news that Britain will ban TikTok on government phones with immediate effect, a move that follows other Western countries in barring the Chinese-owned video app over security concerns, the writing is on the wall.
The reasons are well rehearsed. TikTok combines the usual well-founded fears about social media safety (the speedy spread of disinformation and harmful content in a timewasting package) with national security fears surrounding the possible involvement of the Chinese government.
For years, this has led to something of a standoff between legislators and ByteDance, the company behind TikTok. But now, things appear to be coming to a head, and what happens in the next few weeks could sink an app that has been near the top of app store download charts for half a decade.
Is TikTok going to be banned?
The UK’s adoption of the Online Safety Bill could cause problems for TikTok, but that’s small fry compared to the global picture.
TikTok’s app has already been banned on government handsets in the EU and the US. The UK Government just confirmed a similar ban “with immediate effect”.
The Biden administration is “demanding” Bytedance sells TikTok, or face a national ban under the new legislation
While it’s safe to say this won’t put too much of a dent in TikTok’s usage stats, the message is clear: western governments think the app is dangerous and, if that’s the case, logically it follows that further consumer bans may be under consideration.
Indeed, the United States has taken the lead on this, introducing legislation earlier this month that would give the US commerce department the power to ban “foreign-based technologies if they pose national security threats”.
How would the US ban TikTok?
The latest suggestion is that the United States is preparing to get tough. A report in The Wall Street Journal, and confirmed by TikTok to Reuters, says that the Biden administration is “demanding” Bytedance sells TikTok, or face a national ban under the new legislation.
In such circumstances, removing the app from the Google Play and Apple App Store would be pretty straightforward, but that’s very much shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, given the huge install base.
The government would then have to work with operators to block access to TikTok’s servers. A VPN could sidestep that easily enough, but then it becomes a numbers game: do enough people care about TikTok to install a VPN? If not, the western-friendly content dies on the vine and people lose interest anyway.
Is TikTok safe for now?
The good news for TikTok is, despite the sabre rattling, this is far from a foregone conclusion.
TikTok has stood up to presidential pressure in the past. Former President Trump tried to force TikTok’s sale, but ByteDance stood firm. And, while the threat of a nationwide US ban is more real than at any point previously, it has plenty of hurdles to clear if it is to become law.
Count Capital Alpha Partners — the strategic policy research and political forecasting firm — is among the sceptics. “We do not expect TikTok to be banned and the Warner bill does not require a ban,” the firm wrote in a release earlier this month, citing the lack of buy-in from key stakeholders and divided control of congress.
“We see President Biden seeking to accommodate TikTok under strict data-security protocols,” the release continues. “In our view, he could have already sought a ban but has not. If there was unanimity in Congress on banning TikTok, we also believe it would have happened already.”
The same hurdles apply in the UK. An app ban here would involve the drafting of a bill to be presented to the House of Commons. This would be debated and voted for over a number of stages. It would then head to the House of Lords for voting, before gaining royal assent, at which point it would become law.
Given science and technology secretary Michelle Donelan talked down the prospect of a UK Government TikTok ban just two weeks ago — a ban that has just come into effect — it seems unlikely ministers could agree for long enough to make a nationwide UK ban a reality.