The TikTok logo is seen outside TikTok’s corporate social media office in Culver City, California, on March 16, 2023.
Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images
TikTok is at risk of being banned in the US if the Chinese parent company ByteDance will not sell its stake. Millions of Americans who use the popular video app are wondering what it means for them.
Some fans of the service may turn to virtual private networks (VPNs) to try to connect to TikTok if a ban occurs, a solution that can make it appear as if their internet connection is coming from another country. But that loophole may not be so easy to exploit.
That’s not a problem yet, as there are still some ways a TikTok ban can be avoided or accessed legally in the US. Here are the main things to consider.
What a ban or forced sale could look like
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) is the interagency body that evaluates national security concerns surrounding the app to determine how to minimize the risk if it continues to operate domestically. The group can recommend to President Joe Biden that ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, a TikTok precursor, is winding down, forcing a sale of those assets.
TikTok has recommended a curtailment plan as an alternative to a forced sale. But it’s a long-term solution like CFIUS already threatened with ban if ByteDance will not sell its stake.
A foreclosure would be a complex step requiring winding up a year-old transaction. The Trump administration followed that path once before to no avail. The Chinese government probably would oppose it again, but it would have to be cautious in its protests because the core of its argument to the US is that TikTok operates independently.
“That would be part of the calculus and how aggressively China would want to respond,” said Lindsay Gorman, a senior fellow for emerging technologies at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy. Gormany previously served as a senior adviser to the Biden White House.
Should the US ban TikTok, the mechanics of what happens from there become murky. Oracle is cloud hosting service for all TikTok usage in US ISPs like Comcast (NBC Universal’s parent company) and Verizon direct traffic to end users. And the app stores are controlled by Apple and Google are the primary places for consumers to download the TikTok app.
Shannon Reavesa partner in Stroock’s CFIUS compliance group, said any third-party demands would not come from CFIUS, which is solely tasked with evaluating foreign investments.
“There will be no action by CFIUS as a result of this review that will be taken against third parties that are not part of this transaction,” Reaves said. “So your apples and your Googles and so on, that it’s not going to happen.”
The government may have to resort to legislation or executive orders to get app distributors, internet service providers and cloud services to block access to TikTok.
While there will likely always be cracks that can be exploited by a subset of computer-savvy users, the typical consumer would have difficulty accessing a government-banned service, said Douglas Schmidtan engineering professor at Vanderbilt.
“There will almost always be ways around this,” Schmidt said. “It would just be a lot harder for a regular person to do that without getting an advanced degree in computer security or something.”
In other words, a VPN won’t do, in part because going that route would probably still require app store credentials, which will indicate a user’s location. Gerald Kasulis, vice president at NordVPN, said there is also technology available to detect when a user is trying to access an app using a VPN.
The security issues
Concerns about TikTok’s security risk come down to two main issues. The first is who can access US consumer information and the second is who has the ability to determine what information reaches US users. Under Chinese law, companies can be required to hand over internal information to the government for alleged national security purposes.
TikTok has sought to assure the US government that US user data is stored outside of China. The company has developed an elaborate plan known as Project Texas that includes review of its code in the United States and a separate board for a domestic subsidiary, with members vetted by the US government.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who will testify before a US House panel next week, said The Wall Street Journal that Project Texas would do as much as divestment to address any security concerns.
But the mood in Washington is not moving in TikTok’s favor, and lawmakers have lost any confidence they may once have had in China and its motives. That problem resurfaced earlier this year, when a suspected Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over much of the U.S. Biden ordered the military to shoot down the balloon last month.
When it comes to consumer technology, users have no idea what information is making its way to the Chinese government. And the US government has a lot of work to do to clarify what would happen if the app were to be banned.
“Even for someone who studies this, it’s not easy to remove and sort out all these apps,” Gorman said. “As a society, we haven’t made the decision that the app stores, the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, should limit apps based on the amount of information they collect. That can’t be put on any individual and it really needs to be addressed by governments.”
While many users might think their casual use of social media would be of little interest to a foreign government, Schmidt said the data can have surprising value to bad actors.
“Having information about your habits and your interests and your interactions and where you go and what you do can be used for things like either phishing attacks to get access to more information, or for things like extortion, if you do things that you might not want others to know about, says Schmidt.
It is uncharted territory for US companies, unlike China, which blocks access to all kinds of content, including most major US internet services.
“Trying to access police data is very, very difficult, especially when there’s suspicion that the people doing this have a reason to do it,” Schmidt said. “And they are strongly motivated to collect this information and use it for all sorts of purposes.”
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