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The conversation: TikTok bans

What’s the story here?

Countries around the world are talking about banning TikTok, one of the world’s biggest social media platforms with around 800 million active users.

Wow! So what’s the problem?

There are concerns over national security and data protection, due mainly to the fact that TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is based in China and subject to the country’s strict intelligence and security laws.

So, has any country actually banned it yet?

Yep, India did so in June. That’s a big deal: it was the app’s biggest overseas market, with an estimated 120 million users. The Indian government cited TikTok and the 58 other chinese based apps that were banned at the same time as “hostile to national security” and said they “pose a threat to sovereignty”.

And other countries are thinking about following suit?

Yes. There have been vocal concerns in the US and Australia about whether ByteDance is sharing users’ data with the Chinese government. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on 7 July that banning TikTok in the US is “something we’re looking at” and warned it puts “your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”.

In Australia, a Senate inquiry about foreign interference in social media apps is underway. Both the US and Australian militaries have blocked soldiers from using the app on government-issued phones.

Didn’t I see something about South Korea too?

It hasn’t been banned there, but it was fined 186m won (£123,000) earlier this month for mishandling children’s data. The KCC, South Korea’s media watchdog, said TikTok collected data of children under 14 years old without the consent of legal guardians.

Presumably TikTok isn’t happy about all of this…

No! For starters, it has vehemently denied being under the thumb of the Chinese government. And indeed, as China imposed its National Security Law on Hong Kong, TikTok said it would stop operating in the region.

TikTok has said previously that it operates separately from ByteDance. It also maintains that its data is kept in the United States, with backup servers in Singapore, and that it does not keep data in China. The company has also insisted that “none of our data is subject to Chinese law”.

Are other factors at play, then?

Regardless of the truth behind the claims, social media regulation can be part and parcel of international diplomacy these days. India’s ban of the app came at a moment of high tension with China over disputed borders. Pompeo alluding to a TikTok ban could be read as part of President Trump’s trade war with China – or maybe he’s just upset at the way users reportedly teamed up to troll a Trump rally.

In a letter to Australian MPs this week, TikTok expressed frustration at the criticism it has received: “The truth is, with tensions rising between some countries, TikTok has unfortunately been caught in the middle and is being used by some as a political football.”

Is a ban likely in the UK?

There’s been no direct talk about one yet – but another Chinese film, Huawei, did fall foul of the UK government this week.

On Tuesday, mobile providers were banned from buying the Chinese firm’s 5G equipment after 31 December, and told that they must also remove all existing 5G kit by 2027.

Will TikTok follow? Who knows. But speaking to the BBC, James Sullivan, head of cyber research at British security think-tank Rusi, said, “Huawei is the test case. It's probably the start of a trend in the West where sanctions will seek to squeeze, or even sink, large Chinese tech companies.”

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