The Biden administration has presented Chinese company ByteDance with an ultimatum: sell your popular video-sharing app, TikTok, or be banned nationwide.
TikTok has not yet indicated it will sell, but has attempted to persuade U.S. officials that they can address security concerns and meet the level of proposed scrutiny. TikTok’s CEO has argued a ban would not address security concerns.
But what would a ban mean for consumers? Is there any precedent for such a ban?
NBC News spoke with four people who have studied cybersecurity, national security and technology policy who offered some ideas about how a TikTok ban could work.
How would a ban work?
It’s not clear how the U.S. would institute a ban. The White House’s best chance to do that would likely come from a bill introduced by a bipartisan group of senators last week that has strong White House support.
While the senators behind the bill introduced it as a way to potentially ban TikTok, it isn’t clear exactly how that would happen. It would give the Secretary of Commerce a broader power to ban foreign technology in cases in which the U.S. believed it posed a national security threat. How that authority would be wielded is still up for debate, however. A spokesperson for the Commerce Department declined to discuss details on how the agency is considering that power.
The easiest mechanism for the government to enforce a ban would be to prohibit the app stores from making TikTok available to download, said Darrell M. West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation. The app could lose functionality over time.
“If there’s a ban, there would definitely be no more updates and software enhancements, and over time, it becomes harder to use those apps,” West said.
The use of TikTok could also potentially be criminalized, resulting in fines, said Ahmed Ghappour, professor of law at Boston University. This has been done in the past with other banned software that was flagged as a national security threat. Though he said no such software has been “as mainstream as TikTok.”
Could I still use TikTok?
Possibly. An app store ban would leave the app intact on phones where it was already downloaded. Theoretically, those apps would still be operational. The government cannot force people to remove the app, West said.
There is uncertainty about what the app would look like for those grandfathered in — if existing users could log in and still access video-sharing and browsing capabilities.
But the U.S. could theoretically go farther than that by forcing internet providers to block the app.
India is the largest country to have entirely banned TikTok, having blocked dozens of mostly Chinese apps in 2020. Shortly following the ban, India’s Department of Telecommunications ordered internet and wireless service providers to block the apps, TikTok among them.
Soon after that, some TikTok users in India said the app no longer had any functionality.
Has the U.S. ever banned an app?
The U.S. has never issued a blanket ban on an app. TikTok has been the subject of a variety of smaller restrictions.
Many public universities have restricted access to the social media app from school-owned devices and campus Wi-Fi networks, and states have prohibited government-issued devices from having the app downloaded.
The U.S. did force the sale of an app. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) regularly reviews foreign-owned companies to determine if their business and transactions pose a threat to national security.
In 2019, CFIUS forced a Chinese company to divest ownership of the dating app Grindr.
Could I use a VPN to access TikTok?
If the U.S. moves to completely block the app, there is a possibility that the use of a VPN (virtual private network) could provide access to the app.
Virtual private networks are services that allow users to redirect their internet connection through other networks. They’re often used to get around certain types of internet censorship.
“There are virtual networks that allow people to get access to Western applications,” West said. Americans could use the same to access TikTok. A ban would be difficult to enforce, he added, because there are always loopholes.
Still, the government could target VPN access to make the ban effective. Officials could “ban VPN use or compel VPN companies to have a blacklist of sites that they will not permit the flow of traffic to,” Ghappour said.
Other experts said that while there could be workarounds to the ban, they may not be sustainable due to the popularity of the app.
“There really wouldn’t be a way to circumvent the ban. The market is too big,” said Elly Rostoum, a political scientist and lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We’re talking about a third of the United States population that uses TikTok.”
Would a ban mean my data is secure?
It would not.
“The ban does not address the key problem that TikTok poses, which is transfer of data,” Rostoum said. “There will be another company that’s owned by a Chinese company that can transfer the data.”
Other experts were in agreement.
“TikTok is just the tip of the iceberg,” said James Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “Many products have Chinese software.”
Beyond data privacy concerns with Chinese-owned companies, the U.S. has no overarching federal data privacy law, and data brokers freely buy and sell users’ data with very little oversight. And TikTok’s access to user information isn’t unique — most smartphone apps harvest data from users’ phones.