The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A TikTok ban might be a win for China. There’s a better way.

(Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)
4 min

Like a viral looping video, the TikTok saga seems to have come full circle — with a U.S. president reportedly pushing for the sale of the app, or else a total ban. Joe Biden’s campaign for the move is more coherent and convincing than his predecessor’s 2020 attempt, but the desired outcome is still unsettling.

Guest Opinion: Banning TikTok is a bad solution to the wrong problem

Even the most credible arguments in favor of exiling TikTok because of parent company ByteDance’s Chinese ownership have been focused not on what has happened but on what could happen: President Xi Jinping’s regime could request specific data on sensitive individuals to blackmail them — or a trove of information on a vast array of users to glean some knowledge about the rising generation. The Chinese Communist Party could pressure the company to censor material that paints it in a poor light or promote posts that serve its interests — including, say, to manipulate a U.S. election in favor of a preferred candidate.

There are legal roadblocks to kicking out TikTok. But the administration’s ability to pursue a divestiture or put a ban in place even if the interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) declines to do so would be enhanced by the proposed Restrict Act. The bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) would authorize the Commerce Department to mitigate the risks posed by certain foreign-owned products, or force divestiture or prohibit them if mitigation isn’t sufficient to address the threat. This repeatable, rules-based process for evaluating these services that the proposed bill would enable is welcome. So, too, are transparency provisions that would encourage the national security community to justify whatever steps the administration may take.

A congressional hearing with TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew on Thursday at times seemed more like performance art than serious legislative oversight, underscoring why the Senate bill’s more thoughtful approach is encouraging. Its changes would be a great improvement on the current game of whack-a-mole the country seems to be playing with the Huaweis, Kasperskys, TikToks and WeChats of the world — distinguishing between the type of risk they pose as well as the degree and tailoring responses based on those determinations. Whether a carefully designed process would or should result in the banning of TikTok, however, is dubious.

Concerns about the platform have always been worth the country’s attention — yet there’s also reason to dial down the alarmism. It is true, for instance, that China’s national security law would require the company to turn over information about its users to the government if ordered to do so, and that employees there have accessed U.S. user data. But it’s also true that the United States’ lack of a federal privacy law means most data with potential value to an adversary is already available for purchase on the internet from a broker. Reports on possible censorship of protests in Hong Kong or mentions of Tiananmen Square are also worrisome. But while election manipulation is a serious matter, research on Russia’s 2016 interference efforts suggests that orchestrating a TikTok conspiracy might not prove all that effective compared with, say, hacking and leaking legitimate documents.

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  • D.C. Council reverses itself on school resource officers. Good.
  • Virginia makes a mistake by pulling out of an election fraud detection group.
  • Vietnam sentences another democracy activist.
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The D.C. Council voted on Tuesday to stop pulling police officers out of schools, a big win for student safety. Parents and principals overwhelmingly support keeping school resource officers around because they help de-escalate violent situations. D.C. joins a growing number of jurisdictions, from Montgomery County, Md., to Denver, in reversing course after withdrawing officers from school grounds following George Floyd’s murder. Read our recent editorial on why D.C. needs SROs.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) just withdrew Virginia from a data-sharing consortium, ERIC, that made the commonwealth’s elections more secure, following Republicans in seven other states in falling prey to disinformation peddled by election deniers. Former GOP governor Robert F. McDonnell made Virginia a founding member of ERIC in 2012, and until recently conservatives touted the group as a tool to combat voter fraud. D.C. and Maryland plan to remain. Read our recent editorial on ERIC.
In Vietnam, a one-party state, democracy activist Tran Van Bang was sentenced on Friday to eight years in prison and three years probation for writing 39 Facebook posts. The court claimed he had defamed the state in his writings, according to Radio Free Asia. In the past six years, at least 60 bloggers and activists have been sentenced to between 4 and 15 years in prison under the law, Human Rights Watch found. Read more of the Editorial Board’s coverage on autocracy and Vietnam.
The Department of Homeland Security has provided details of a plan to prevent a migrant surge along the southern border. The administration would presumptively deny asylum to migrants who failed to seek it in a third country en route — unless they face “an extreme and imminent threat” of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder. Critics allege that this is akin to an illegal Trump-era policy. In fact, President Biden is acting lawfully in response to what was fast becoming an unmanageable flow at the border. Read our most recent editorial on the U.S. asylum system.


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Both sets of worries ought to be addressed. Indeed, TikTok has tried to. Under the plan known as Project Texas, the firm would store U.S. data only on U.S.-owned servers, submit its recommendation algorithms to U.S. monitoring and place its operations under the control of a U.S.-approved board of security experts. No solution, especially applied to a platform of TikTok’s scale, can truly be watertight — but the conclusions the company came to during its negotiations with CFIUS are probably close to the best any platform can do. Which means that their rejection now raises the question: If TikTok can’t operate here, can any social media service originating in China?

The implications of a “no” here are vast. There are ways to distinguish between TikTok and other services, and ways to distinguish China from other countries. There may also be reasons the public is yet unaware of that the app is more of a menace than it seems. But the United States has rightly prided itself on its openness to free trade and free expression alike. Cutting off a service that 150 million people in this country use, whether to watch lip-syncing videos, hype their small businesses or share news, might look like a blow to China in the short run. Yet it would be a victory for that country’s philosophy of techno-nationalism and a defeat for an open world and open web. If the White House does try to ban TikTok, it will owe citizens — users of the platform and non-users alike — a good explanation.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; Mili Mitra (public policy solutions and audience development); Keith B. Richburg (foreign affairs); and Molly Roberts (technology and society).