TikTok: A Contested Global Space

As pandemic related shutdowns around the world have confined many people to their homes, one social media app has exploded in popularity. TikTok, which allows users to sync unique videos under sixty seconds to an ever-growing number of audio tracks, has grown by 800% from January 2018 and boasts 800 million active users globally.[1] Despite its extreme success, the app has received significant backlash since its debut. Around the world, countries have contemplated or executed bans against the viral product of the Chinese company ByteDance. Many countries cite data privacy as the reasoning for the bans, but other factors have also come into play, such as relations with China and content concerns.

The app faced the possibility of losing a significant portion of its user base in the summer of 2020 when U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app, citing data privacy concerns as the primary motivation. Though the ban never came to fruition, it fueled the public perception of TikTok as potential spyware. Several U.S.-based organizations, such as Wells Fargo and the Democratic National Committee, cautioned employees against keeping the app on their phones.[2] These same fears were echoed in Japan and Korea, both of which contemplated a ban in late summer. Korean officials stated that, contingent on the decisions of the U.S. and Japan, a TikTok ban was “likely.”[3]

There are conflicting opinions on whether or not TikTok is truly a greater security risk than other social media apps. TikTok collects detailed geographic and demographic data, which cybersecurity expert Zak Doffman believes could be dangerous in the hands of an “adversarial foreign government.”[4] For example, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan, Akira Amari, warned that any partnership with Chinese firms could lead to data leaks.[5]

The app has handled a series of security issues since its debut, many of which have put the reliability of the app into question. In 2019, TikTok violated the guidelines of the Google Play Store by storing user data even after the app is deleted, making it impossible for users to create a fresh slate.[6] More recently, Korea fined TikTok for collecting the data of minors under the age of 14. Ashley Nash-Hahn, TikTok spokesperson, insists that the app “[has] not, and [will] not, give [user data] to the Chinese government.” TikTok stores user data on servers in the U.S. and Singapore, and there is no indication that the data is exported to another location.[7]

There is little evidence to suggest that TikTok is more invasive than other social media apps when it comes to data collection, not that that is an exceptionally high bar. Facebook has amassed many domestic data privacy violations, and even received the largest Federal Trade Commission fine on record, requiring a $5 billion settlement.[8] The consensus among cybersecurity experts is that such data collection poses little threat to the individual, but when it comes to national security, many nations are strongly opposed to the idea of China possessing such detailed data on their citizens if ByteDance’s data is leaked.[9]

In late June 2020, the Indian government banned nearly 60 Chinese mobile apps, including TikTok. The move came after a deadly clash between the Chinese and Indian militaries in the remote Galwan Valley at the Indo-Chinese border in the Himalayas. The skirmish left 20 Indian soldiers dead and about a dozen captured, with an unknown number of Chinese casualties.[10] Though it was difficult to assess the exact trigger of the clash, each side blamed the other for the violence, as this incident became the worst border conflict between India and China in over 40 years.

In response to such heightened military tensions, India decided to retaliate in the telecommunication sector. In a move labeled as ‘techno-nationalism’ by cyber analysts, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology stated that Chinese mobile apps were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting user data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.”[10] The government cited China’s National Intelligence Law as the primary evidence for this claim, which holds Chinese companies legally responsible for cooperation when it comes to Chinese intelligence gathering. India thus views data as a sovereign national asset, and so has national security concerns with the data China can collect through apps such as TikTok. India’s ban on TikTok persists till today, even though before the ban, India constituted nearly 30% of TikTok’s 2 billion downloads.[10]

Though India’s relations with China have led to the country banning TikTok, countries such as Pakistan have cited concerns with ‘indecent content’ as reasons for banning the app. In early October, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority stated it was banning TikTok because of complaints “from different segments of the society against immoral/indecent content” on the app.[11] The move was significant, because unlike India, Pakistan has very strong relations with China and was also the app’s 12th largest market. 

In 2016, Pakistan implemented a controversial cyber security law, the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, which gave the PTA the authority to block content in the “interest of the glory of Islam or the integrity, security or defence of Pakistan.”[12] Since then, the country has heavily censored Internet access, with TikTok being its latest victim. However, just two weeks after announcing this ban, Pakistan reneged, announcing that “TikTok is being unlocked after assurance from management that they will block all accounts repeatedly involved in spreading obscenity and immorality.”[13]

Across the world, TikTok has faced similar occasional bans. Last year, Bangladesh banned TikTok as part of a clampdown on pornography. Indonesia also blocked the app in 2018 over concerns about blasphemy.[14] In Egypt, though TikTok was never banned, two female TikTok users with millions of followers were convicted on charges of violating family values and were sentenced to 2 years in prison in July.[15]

As countries grapple with the unique implications of a digital age, TikTok appears to be at the center. From privacy to national security to moral probity, TikTok is a highly contested space that remains under intense scrutiny by governments around the world.


Works Cited

[1] Sherman, Alex. “TikTok Reveals Detailed User Numbers for the First Time.” CNBC, August 23, 2020. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/08/24/tiktok-reveals-us-global-user-growth-numbers-for-first-time.html.

[2] Doffman, Zak. “Is TikTok Seriously Dangerous?” Forbes, July 11, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2020/07/11/tiktok-seriously-dangerous-warning-delete-app-trump-ban/?sh=1370b2c62b0e 

[3] Yoo-chul, Kim. “Korea Monitoring US, Japan for Possible Ban on TikTok.” The Korea Times, August 9th, 2020. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/tech/2020/08/133_294106.html

[4] Doffman, Zak. “Is TikTok Seriously Dangerous?” Forbes, July 11, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2020/07/11/tiktok-seriously-dangerous-warning-delete-app-trump-ban/?sh=1370b2c62b0e 

[5] “Japan Shouldn’t Ignore Potential TikTok Data Risks, Top LDP Official Says.” The Japan Times, August 16th, 2020. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/08/16/business/japan-tiktok-akira-amari-china/

[6] Poulsen, Kevin, and Robert McMillan. “TikTok Tracked User Data Using Tactic Banned by Google.” Wall Street Journal, August 11, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/tiktok-tracked-user-data-using-tactic-banned-by-google-11597176738

[7] Fowler, Gregory A. “Is It Time to Delete TikTok?” Washington Post, July 13, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/07/13/tiktok-privacy/

[8] Fowler, Gregory A. “Is It Time to Delete TikTok?” Washington Post, July 13, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/07/13/tiktok-privacy/

[9] Doffman, Zak. “Is TikTok Seriously Dangerous?” Forbes, July 11, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2020/07/11/tiktok-seriously-dangerous-warning-delete-app-trump-ban/?sh=1370b2c62b0e 

[10] Abi-Habib, Maria. “India Bans Nearly 60 Chinese Apps, Including TikTok and WeChat.” NYTimes, June 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/29/world/asia/tik-tok-banned-india-china.html 

[11] Wang, Selina. “Pakistan’s TikTok ban is about censorship, not China.” CNN, October 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/13/tech/tiktok-pakistan-ban-intl-hnk/index.html 

[12] Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, 2016. http://www.na.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1470910659_707.pdf 

[13] Shah, Saeed. “Pakistan Drops TikTok Ban After App Pledges to Police Content.” WSJ, October 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/pakistan-drops-tiktok-ban-after-app-pledges-to-police-content-11603125824 

[14] Masood, Salman. “Pakistan Rescinds TikTok Ban.” NYTimes, October 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/19/business/pakistan-tiktok-ban.html 

[15] Walsh, Declan. “Egypt Sentences Women to 2 Years in Prison for TikTok Videos.” NYTimes, July 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/28/world/middleeast/egypt-women-tiktok-prison.html