The US state of Montana has fired a shot across TikTok’s bow in a move that seems doomed to fail: a ban on the Chinese-owned social media app in the state.
Under a new law signed by the governor Greg Gianforte, app stores such as those available on Apple and Google platforms, will no longer be allowed to offer the TikTok app to customers in Montana. The reasoning behind it? To protect the people of Montana from having their private data “harvested by the Chinese Communist Party.”
The ban is set to come into effect in January next year, but experts say it is likely to be challenged in the US courts.
Montana may be the first consumer ban, but it isn’t the only one cracking down on TikTok. In the US, the app is already banned from federal government devices. The European Commission has also banned the app from the phones of its officials, citing privacy risks. There have been rumblings for some time now about the potential national security risk posed by TikTok. The restrictions stem from fears that sensitive data on official phones could be accessed by the Chinese government.
It all seems a bit over the top for an app that primarily offers videos of people dancing or partaking in challenges that seem destined to end in bodily injury. TikTok has gained significant popularity in recent years, thriving in lockdown and giving people an outlet for the sheer boredom of months with very little outside human contact.
But why is it so controversial? The answer lies in its ownership. Bytedance is a Chinese company and, as such, is subject to Chinese laws. That has prompted accusations of a “reds under the bed” attitude.
“There is a Chinese law that states that all tech companies must co-operate with the Chinese government. So there is potential that if the Chinese government wants to spy on somebody, it could do so via a social media app,” says security expert Brian Honan.
“But that potential is the same for many other social media apps, because many other social media apps are based in countries that would have similar national security laws that would require the social media provider to co-operate.”
Another part of the problem is lies its popularity. TikTok is addictive and hugely popular with younger users. The platform now has more than 1 billion active users. That means it has huge potential influence, not to mention a treasure trove of data. There have been whispers about potentially weaponising the platform against western governments to sow disinformation.
That alone should not be a reason to ban TikTok. An outright ban is likely to have the opposite effect, making it more attractive to users, particularly younger ones.
“The state of Montana is currently doing very good impression of the village that Kevin [Bacon] lived in Footloose during the ban on rock’n’roll and dancing,” says privacy expert Darragh O’Brien of Castlebridge .
“It’s ironic that the republicans, the republican governor of Montana, is using exactly the same approach that the Chinese will use in relation to apps they don’t want people trying to download.
“The reality is that the ban, even if it’s introduced will be effectively unenforceable because anyone who wants to download TikTok will use a VPN to bypass any controls that might be put in place,” says O’Brien.
There seems to be an element of double standards at play. While TikTok may have its issues, industry watchers argue that it is no worse than what is going on among the intelligence agencies in the US and Europe, as evidenced by the 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden, the former contractor for the CIA who leaked details of extensive internet and phone surveillance by American intelligence, and the leaks from GCHQ, the British spy agency.
There are good reasons to be sceptical of the social media platform. TikTok last year admitted that it used its app to track the movements of reporters who had reported critically on the company in an attempt to hunt down internal sources leaking information. After initially denying the reports, the company admitted it was true. People were fired, processes were tightened, and TikTok assured authorities it would not happen again.
Again, TikTok is not alone in these incidents.
The outrage over that incident was mirrored by reaction to ride sharing app Uber several years ago when it was alleged that former chief executive Travis Kalanick had demonstrated Uber’s “God View”, which displayed Uber users’ movements in real-time as a sort of party trick for attendees of a launch party.
But there was little pushback when it emerged earlier this week that Twitter was now complying with more than 80 per cent of requests for data from governments, up from around 50 per cent before Elon Musk took ownership of the platform
There are also data protection laws in Europe to take into account.
“There are laws in place to secure and protect data that TikTok has to abide by. Under GDPR [the EU-wide data privacy law] there are additional restrictions that social media companies have to comply with when it comes to children’s data. In Ireland, the age of consent for a child to sign up to an online service is 16 years of age,” says Honan.
“The problem is to be quite blunt is that we allow children to have access to these services despite what the regulations say in this area. If you are concerned about your child on TikTok, then sit down with them, give them solid guidance on how to use these social media platforms and stay safe. And if you are not happy, maybe restrict it until they are more mature.”
Banning the app may put more people at risk, forcing people to find workarounds that could lead to more security flaws on their devices instead. Jailbreaking devices, or installing software from unknown sources on the web may leave people more vulnerable to their personal data being stolen and misused – ironically, the exact thing these bans claim to want to prevent.
But TikTok has people talking about privacy and data protection, which may eventually lead to change in the industry.
The best way to stop data leaking to unwanted sources is not to collect it at all, according to TJ McIntyre, the associate professor and head of teaching and learning in UCD’s Sutherland School of Law. And that goes for online platforms across the board, not just TikTok.
“The main concern should be about privacy more generally. It’s good that we’re talking about that,” he says.
“It’s unfortunate that it had to take concern about Chinese involvement to prompt that.”
A spokesman for TikTok said the company believed any ban of the social media platform was “based on fundamental misconceptions”.
“We share a common goal with all governments that are concerned about user privacy, but any bans are misguided and do nothing to further privacy or security,” he said.
“TikTok actively encourages transparent and communicative dialogue when concerns are expressed about our platform.”