The Biden administration has given Chinese company ByteDance an ultimatum: Sell its popular video-sharing app, TikTok, or it will be banned nationwide.
TikTok has not yet indicated that it will sell, but has tried to persuade US officials that they can address security concerns and meet the proposed level of scrutiny. Tik Tok CEO he has argued that a ban would not address safety concerns.
But what would a ban mean for consumers? Is there any precedent for such a ban?
NBC News spoke with four people who have studied cybersecurity, homeland security, and technology policy who offered some thoughts on how a TikTok ban might work.
How would a ban work?
It is unclear how the United States would institute a ban. The White House’s best chance to do that would likely come from a bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators last week that enjoys strong White House support.
While the senators behind the bill pitched it as a potential way to ban TikTok, it’s unclear exactly how that would happen. It would give the Secretary of Commerce broader power to ban foreign technology in cases where the US believes it poses a threat to national security. However, how that authority would be exercised is still debated. A Commerce Department spokesman declined to discuss details about how the agency is considering that power.
The easiest mechanism for the government to enforce a ban would be to prohibit app stores from making TikTok available for download. said Darrell M. West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation. The app may lose functionality over time.
“If there’s a ban, there definitely wouldn’t be any more software updates or upgrades, and over time it becomes more difficult to use those apps,” West said.
Use of TikTok could also potentially be criminalized, resulting in fines, said Ahmed Ghappour, a Boston University law professor. This has been done in the past with other prohibited software that was flagged as a threat to national security. He though he said that no such software has been “as mainstream as TikTok”.
Could I still use TikTok?
Possibly. An app store ban would leave the app intact on phones where it was already downloaded. Theoretically, those apps would still be operational. The government can’t force people to remove the app, West said.
There is uncertainty about what the app would look like for those who grandfathered in, if existing users were able to log in and still access the browsing and video sharing capabilities.
But in theory, the US could go further by forcing Internet providers to block the app.
India is the largest country to have banned TikTok outright, blocking dozens of mostly Chinese apps in 2020. Shortly after the ban, India’s Department of Telecommunications Ordered Internet and Wireless Service Providers to block the applications, TikTok among them.
Soon after, some TikTok users in India said that the app no longer had any functionality.
Has the United States ever banned an app?
The United States has never issued a blanket ban on an app. TikTok has been subject to a variety of minor restrictions.
Many public universities have restricted access to the social media app from school-owned devices and campus Wi-Fi networks, and states have prohibited downloading the app on government-provided devices.
The United States forced the sale of an application. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) periodically reviews foreign-owned companies to determine whether their businesses and transactions pose a threat to national security.
In 2019, CFIUS forced a Chinese company to divest ownership of the dating app Grindr.
Can I use a VPN to access TikTok?
If the US moves to completely block the app, there is a chance that using a VPN (virtual private network) could provide access to the app.
Virtual private networks are services that allow users to redirect their Internet connection through other networks. They are often used to bypass certain types of Internet censorship.
“There are virtual networks that allow people to access Western applications,” West said. Americans could use the same thing to access TikTok. A ban would be difficult to enforce, she added, because there are always loopholes.
Still, the government could target VPN access for the ban to be effective. Officials could “ban VPN use or force VPN companies to have a blacklist of sites they won’t allow traffic to flow to,” Ghappour said.
Other experts said that while there could be solutions to the ban, they may not be sustainable due to the popularity of the app.
“There really would be no way around the ban. The market is too big,” said Elly Rostoum, a political scientist and professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We’re talking about a third of the US population using TikTok.”
Would a ban mean my data is safe?
“The ban does not address the key problem TikTok raises, which is data transfer,” Rostoum said. “There will be another company that is owned by a Chinese company that can transfer the data.”
Other experts agreed.
“TikTok is just the tip of the iceberg,” said James Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Many products have Chinese software.”
Beyond data privacy concerns with Chinese-owned companies, The US has no comprehensive federal data privacy law, and data brokers freely buy and sell user data with very little oversight. And TikTok’s access to user information isn’t unique: Most smartphone apps collect data from users’ phones.