OPINION: TikTok, the United States, China and you


Price Wilborn, Commentary Editor

For some time now, the popular social media app TikTok has been in the news for its connections to the Chinese government. The app is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which has its headquarters in Beijing. 

In November, FBI Director Chris Wray warned that the app could be used by the Chinese government to spy on Americans. This followed attempts by the Trump administration in 2020 to ban TikTok in the United States.

This led to a series of states, universities and other entities blocking the app on devices or networks. The University of Oklahoma and Auburn University are among those blocking the app on school-owned devices or networks. The United States House of Representatives has also banned the app on official devices.

Just this month, Kentucky became one of over twenty states to ban the app on state-owned devices. While this ban is only in the executive branch of the commonwealth’s government, the state Senate and House of Representatives have also proposed bills that would ban the app in the legislative branch and pave the way for the judicial branch to do the same. Senate Bill 20 and House Bill 124 will be up for debate during the current legislative session, and if passed and signed into law will take effect immediately.

TikTok is hugely popular among people of all ages (myself included). As of Jan. 12, Wallaroo Media reports the app having over one billion active users monthly. Of these users, Wallaroo reports that there have been over 210 million downloads in the United States out of a population of over 334 million. Of these American users, 32.5% are aged 10-19 and 29.5% are aged 20-29. Chances are that you or someone you know have the app downloaded.

So should you be worried?

In recent decades, China has grown rapidly. The nation has become a leader in technological development. Buildings that would take years to build in other nations take Chinese builders months to build. The nation quickly caught up to the United States economically, becoming the second-largest economy in the world. The Centre for Economics and Business Research forecasts China taking the number one spot by 2036.

It is well-known that China uses mass surveillance systems to keep tabs on its citizens. The Internet and media are closely controlled by the state if they are not state-owned. If the Chinese Communist Party does not want its citizens on a certain website or to access a certain media outlet, it will make sure that the Chinese people cannot do so.

The New York Times writes that “the Chinese government’s role is clear: designing a system to maximize what the state can find out about a person’s identity, activities and social connections, which could ultimately help the government maintain its authoritarian rule.”

Western thought and ideals have led the world for centuries but especially since the end of WWII in 1945. China seeks to change this – making Chinese thought dominant in global discourse. As China works to further its standing in the world, it would not be out of the realm of possibility for the nation to use things like TikTok to spy on its adversaries like the United States.

It has been reported that the United States government has been in negotiations with TikTok, attempting to work through the privacy and national security concerns the app poses. CNBC writes that “the government’s concerns include how TikTok could share information related to its video recommendation algorithm and how much trust the government would ultimately need to put in TikTok to follow through on the deal’s terms, according to [The Wall Street Journal].”

There is still the chance of a national ban on the app, however slim the chance may be. The main concern of the United States government, as well as state governments and universities, is the security of its citizens. 

Calls for a ban have been made and there have been attempts to ban the app for years. In 2020, then President Donald Trump called for a national ban, going so far as to ban new downloads of the app. This was overturned by a series of judges. Last month, however, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) proposed a bill to ban the app in the United States. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)  has also voiced her support of a TikTok ban on government-owned devices.

FBI Director Chris Wray has stated that the Chinese government possibly collecting data from TikTok “should concern us.” While this is true, TikTok representatives have stated that “we will never share data, period,” and that “TikTok Inc., which offers the TikTok service in the United States, is a U.S. company bound by U.S. laws.”

This should provide some relief to those who are worried. The United States takes the privacy of its citizens when it comes to foreign governments very seriously. Development of American law has coincided with the development of technology. This will always be the case, and laws and concerns surrounding TikTok are no different.

Tracking of data has been an issue for years. There is no reason, however, for it to worry us. There will always be the threat of privacy invasion. As time and technology advance, there will be protections put into place, but there will also be new concerns that arise. If we were to be afraid and want to ban new technology or media every time they posed a slight concern, there would be no media or technology left.

While there is a concern about China collecting data, there have been few specifics made clear as to why Americans should be concerned. If the danger was clear and urgent then American officials would have taken stronger action before now. Instead, there have only been calls for a ban and individual state bans. While these make sense to protect sensitive government or university data, there is little concern for Americans who do not have state secrets stored on their personal devices.

So no, I don’t believe you should be worried. People much smarter than me have expressed concerns, but these are the same people who are working to find an appropriate solution. I trust them and have faith in them, and that is all I need.

Commentary editor Price Wilborn can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @pricewilborn.