Yes, it’s crazy to have TikTok on official phones. But it’s not good for any of us

·4-min read

As of this moment, government officials in 11 countries are forbidden to run TikTok on their government-issued phones. The countries include the US, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, the UK, New Zealand, Norway, France, the Netherlands and Poland. In addition, European Commission and European parliament staff were required to delete the app. This raises two questions.

First, why were politicians and senior officials in democracies scrolling like zombies through dance crazes, daft pet videos, feeling “bonita” and things you can do with smudged lipstick?

And second, what took these governments so long? After all, it’s never been a secret that TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese tech giant based in Beijing. Nor is it a secret that in the People’s Republic of China all corporations bend to Xi Jinping’s will. So anything that TikTok gets to know about its users can, ultimately, also be known by the Chinese regime, right down to Matt Hancock’s dance routines.

Even Donald Trump understood that, which is why he launched a half-arsed attempt to “order” ByteDance to sell TikTok to a US company within 90 days. Like most Trump initiatives, this one was dead on arrival. But the political impetus to “do something” about TikTok has reached fever pitch under the Biden administration and last week led to TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, being dragged before Congress to persuade legislators that, while ByteDance may own TikTok, it doesn’t call the shots.

It was a hard sell and Chew didn’t close the deal. His line was that TikTok had a plan – “Project Texas” – to store US users’ data in Texas. Given that it is hard to think of an American data repository that has not been penetrated by Chinese hackers, this reassured no one. More importantly, though, when an official Chinese spokesman said, during the hearing, that his government would “firmly oppose” any forced sale of TikTok, it was clear that Chew was the monkey, not the organ-grinder, in this story.

So we can expect political pressure to ban TikTok to increase until the associated rhetoric runs up against demographic and, possibly, electoral realities. It’s one thing to stop government officials from zombie scrolling, but more than 500 million Gen Z and Gen Y kids are addicted to the app and are likely to be infuriated if deprived of their online fixes by boomers whose economic policies have screwed their hopes of ever owning a home. And – who knows? – one day those disaffected cohorts might even go to polling stations and vote.

A key element in US strategy is to deny China mastery of digital technology

Similar considerations might give pause to legislators in other polities who are contemplating a general ban on TikTok. But, for the US at least, the app is a sideshow in a much bigger game. The country’s rulers are in the grip of hegemonic panic – increasingly rattled by the emergence of China as a rival superpower that is determined to reshape the US-dominated, postwar global order. And they are determined to prevent that happening.

A key element in US strategy is to deny China mastery of digital technology. The legislative tool for achieving that goal is “the Restrict (Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology) act”, a bill that is on its way through Congress. The bill goes well beyond banning TikTok or sanctioning Huawei. It empowers the president and executive branch (specifically, the US Department of Commerce) to act swiftly with legal empowerment from Congress, which avoids the fiasco of Trump’s previous attempt to ban TikTok and WeChat.

The aims of the bill are astonishingly broad: “To authorize the Secretary of Commerce to review and prohibit certain transactions between persons in the United States and foreign adversaries, and for other purposes.” The list of technologies includes nearly everything that one might list under the general heading of “digital”. Unusually in the current fractured politics of the US, the bill has strong bipartisan support and the White House is backing it. So it’s likely to become law fairly soon. If it does, says Kevin Xu, a shrewd observer of these things, it’s “game over” for all Chinese technology companies seeking to do business in the US.

All of which rather puts TikTok in context. But, as it happens, there are good public health grounds for banning the app – notably its pathologically addictive properties and its ultra-detailed surveillance of its users. If in doubt, just watch your teenage kids when they’re on it: it’s basically Instagram on steroids. But if we were to ban TikTok, shouldn’t we then also ban all social media apps that rely on algorithmic curation for their revenues? Now there’s a really interesting idea.

• John Naughton chairs the advisory board of the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at the University of Cambridge