Pompeo Says US May Ban TikTok; It's Not Clear That It Can
from the or-should dept
New day, new nonsense. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did his Pompeo thing and went on Fox News saying that the US is looking at banning apps from China in the US, with a focus on TikTok, the incredibly popular social media app that is owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance:
The United States is “looking at” banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday.
Pompeo suggested the possible move during an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, adding that “we’re taking this very seriously.”
Pompeo was asked by Ingraham whether the United States should be considering a ban on Chinese social media apps, “especially TikTok.”
“With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cell phones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too, Laura,” he said. “I don’t want to get out in front of the President [Donald Trump], but it’s something we’re looking at.”
It’s difficult to know where to start on this, but let’s at least start by admitting that TikTok has some sketchy issues. We’ve talked about how its content moderation practices may be driven from Beijing’s moral stance (despite denials) and there were recent claims from someone associated with anonymous claiming to have reverse engineered TikTok, saying that it’s a security disaster (it’s not at all clear how accurate that is). At the same time, India just banned TikTok and other Chinese apps over security fears.
So there may be some legitimate concerns here, though a lot of that is based on innuendo and rumor rather than concrete evidence. And, again, we’ve seen this game before. The US spent years spreading security panic about Chinese networking equipment from companies like Huawei and ZTE, without ever actually proving any problems with the hardware (in fact, a massive US government investigation turned up nothing).
But, as we’ve noted, it’s often been difficult to tell where the complaints against Chinese networking hardware end, and where the lobbying from American telco equipment firms like Cisco begin, as there appears to be substantial overlap. There’s no evidence to say that’s true with this new story of an app ban, but it should be noted that Mark Zuckerberg is clearly very, very worried about TikTok, so the US banning the company that seems to be a favorite of the younger generation certainly wouldn’t be protested very much by Facebook.
That said, there are real legal questions about whether or not the US even could ban TikTok in the US. Under what law would they do so? While owned by ByteDance in China, TikTok has spent the last few years separating TikTok’s business from ByteDance, hiring a ton of people in the US and insisting that data from TikTok users is kept in the US (or Singapore) and not in China. ByteDance has also considered selling off TikTok to avoid these concerns.
So it seems incredibly likely that any effort to bar TikTok would raise a whole bunch of legal concerns — starting with a basic 1st Amendment concern. The US government can’t just say “you can’t use that social media app.” That may be how things work in China or India, but not in the US. And, of course, it would likely set off a chain reaction elsewhere as well. China already bans most major US apps and services, but we’re still dealing with a pointless trade war that would only be exacerbated by such a move.
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about TikTok, it’s connections to China, and the security of the app. But none of that means that the US government has the right to just ban it. While Trump may want to pretend he’s a dictator, and Pompeo may want to pretend he works for a dictator, that’s not how any of this works.