On August 6, 2020, President Trump issued an executive order to restrict the app TikTok from US app stores (Lerman, 2020). Since then, TikTok has been a hot topic in the media, with constant debates concerning whether the app should be banned. The discourse surrounding these discussions are typically US-centric and politicized, but there is no need for them to be. The fact of the matter is this: TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is based in Beijing and, as such, vulnerable to the many problems caused by the censorship and surveillance system of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP is a threat to the entire international community and their access to TikTok proliferates the violation of human rights around the world.
The app should be banned because, yes, it is a threat to our national security, it accesses users’ private data, and, more importantly, it is used by the CCP to promote fascist ideology and to censor any content that speaks out against it.
TikTok, a short-video app that allows its users to share clips lasting 3-60 seconds, is popular amongst teenagers around the world. The app has over one billion users globally and an estimated valuation of 75 billion dollars. It is ByteDance’s most successful foreign export and enabled the company to become the world’s most valuable startup in 2018 (Ryan, Cave, and Xu, 2019).
National Security Concerns
Trump cited national security concerns as the reason for enacting the executive order to ban TikTok after, according to Forbes (2020), “inquiry into the app uncovered several threats to the private data of US citizens.” In late 2019, almost nine months before the executive order, the US Navy instructed members to refrain from downloading the app on any government-issued phones and tablets, and to delete it if they had already installed the software; the app was then banned by the US Army as well (Tali, 2020).
According to the Journal of Network Security (2020), the Department of Justice released a memo to important military personnel stating, “Be wary of applications you download, monitor your phones for unusual and unsolicited texts, etc., and delete them immediately and uninstall TikTok to circumvent any exposure of personal information.”
Violations of Human Rights
Though Trump’s attempt to ban TikTok has elicited an increase in the conversation surrounding it, the controversy concerning the app was present long before the executive order. Apart from the national security implications and the use of citizens’ data in the United States, there is contention about the practice of censorship utilized by the app, and rightfully so.
The surveillance technologies and techniques developed by ByteDance (TikTok’s creator) and other China-based tech companies are continuously exploited by the CCP and callously used on Chinese citizens. This includes the Uyghur and other minority populations in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1.5 million people are systematically held in detention centers (Ryan, Cave, and Xu 2019).
The rapid growth of TikTok provides the CCP with an outlet to expand their censorship and control, not only within China but on a global scale:
• In September 2019, the Guardian obtained documents which demonstrated that ByteDance had been advancing Chinese propaganda abroad through TikTok via censorship: TikTok moderators were instructed to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and certain religious groups that were banned within the country.
• That same month, the Washington Post provided evidence of TikTok’s censorship on reports of the Hong Kong protests.
• On October 23, 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that Islamic State had been using the app to share propaganda videos and had uploaded clips of beheading prisoners.
• In late 2019, Motherboard uncovered violent white supremacy and Nazism on the app.
• In Turkey, the app has banned criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, depictions of ‘non-Islamic gods,’ images of alcohol, and displays of same-sex relationships (Ryan, 2019).
Similar examples of censorship on the app are endless—the list goes on and on, and then some.
Responding to the executive order, TikTok has filed a lawsuit against the Trump Administration. In a statement to The Verge (2020), TikTok Spokesman Josh Gartner said,
“Even though we strongly disagree with the administration’s concerns, for nearly a year we have sought to engage in good faith to provide a constructive solution. What we encountered instead was a lack of due process as the administration paid no attention to facts. To ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and users are treated fairly, we have no choice but to challenge the executive order through the judicial system.”
The banning of the app was originally intended to take effect on September 27, 2020, but TikTok received a reprieve of its ban after U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols granted a preliminary injunction blocking the executive order. As quoted by The Washington Post (2020), the judge stated: “It seemed that this was largely a unilateral decision with very little opportunity for the plaintiffs to be heard.”
The judge’s decision to postpone the ban was not unsubstantiated. On August 7, 2020, in an article by the New York Times, the CIA confirmed that, while it is possible for Chinese intelligence authorities to intercept data and use TikTok to hack into smartphones, there is no evidence they have done so—yet. By delaying the ban, Judge Nichols is giving the company the chance to counter the claims made by the initial executive order.
Though there may not be evidence that the CCP has actively retrieved the private data of US citizens from TikTok, the mere fact that they could access the data if they wanted to, is a threat to national security. Also, the Trump Administration, the executive order, the courts, and even TikTok’s representatives, are all fixated on the app’s possible threat to national security. What they need to turn their attention towards, are the Uyghurs and other religious minority groups, who are being forced into literal concentration camps at the hands of the CCP.
Those who are against the executive order argue that banning the app is an infringement on their civil liberties and that national security concerns have been exaggerated. Banning TikTok is not a breach of free speech; rather it is the app itself, under the control of the CCP, that has consistently infringed upon universal human rights, and will continue to do so unless it is banned.
As previously mentioned, the CCP has already acted in ways that violate humans rights via TikTok including, but not limited to, the censorship of anything that goes against Chinese propaganda, monitoring user content to uncover and persecute minority religions, filtering and blocking content that displays same-sex relationships, and much more. Content shared on the app is consistently racist, homophobic, ableist, and xenophobic. In the US, TikTok users who come out as LGBTQ, express their religious affiliation, or criticize the government, might receive a few hateful comments from internet trolls under their videos. In China, users who upload such videos get sent to detention camps—or worse.
The CCP’s unchecked power and their unrelenting violations of human liberty are disturbing and disheartening. For the first time in my life, I agree with President Trump and hope to see the executive order to ban TikTok effectively enacted come November 12.
This article was crafted using primary and secondary sources. For more information regarding the decision around to ban Tik Tok and security concerns, please visit the following:
Lerman, R. (2020, September 28). Judge blocks TikTok ban in second ruling against Trump’s efforts to curb popular Chinese services. Retrieved September 28, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/09/27/tiktok-ban-injunction/
Makridis, C. (2020, September 21). Time’s Up For TikTok: How The Deal Affects You And National Security. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christosmakridis/2020/09/21/times-up-for-tiktok-how-the-deal-affects-you-and-national-security/
Ryan, F., Cave, D., & Xu, V. (2019). Mapping More of China’s Technology Giants (2019 ed., Vol. 24, AI and Surveillance, pp. 1-13) (Australia, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, International Cyber Policy Centre). The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Limited.
Tali Arbel, T. (2020, March 01). Banned on Navy phones, video app TikTok is beloved by
teens. Do they love it too much? Retrieved September 29, 2020, from
“TikTok dangers.” (2020). Network Security, 2020(1), 3-19. doi:10.1016/s1353-4858(20)30004-0