Here's why the TikTok ban matters more than you think

The app’s path to a ban in the United States, signed into law this week, will have wider ramifications than for TikTok alone.

The clock is ticking. After Joe Biden signed into law a bill that would require TikTok’s parent company to divest the app to an American owner or face a ban in the United States, the future of the shortform video-sharing platform is in doubt.

TikTok has said that it will appeal the ban, with the company calling it an “unconstitutional law” and saying “we will ultimately prevail” in court. In its defense, the company will be citing its First Amendment rights to exist and compete in the country, but this ban is far more threatening to the future of the app than a mooted 2020 ban enacted by Donald Trump – which was also contested in court.

But while all the focus is on TikTok’s immediate future, the more meaningful moment in this decision is the precedent it sets and the message it delivers to the rest of the world.

For more than 20 years, the world has been shaped by a Silicon Valley ideal, with apps born from that part of the United States reaching global success. And just as US TV shows can help shape sensibilities, so the soft power of social media and tech giants have shaped our society so that it has a curiously American accent.

A global power imbalance

TikTok upended that. While it was heavily influenced by the United States – ByteDance founder Yiming Zhang was awestruck by US tech leaders and inspired to follow in their footsteps – it was the first app to reach global renown from outside the United States.

American politicians were able to stomach just about four years of tech supremacy in a space outside of the US before they decided enough was enough. And curiously, they’ve established a new norm for the future of tech.

"This legislation is unconstitutional and a real blow to the free expression rights of 170 million people who create and engage with content on TikTok,” says Kate Ruane, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Free Expression Project. “Congress shouldn't be in the business of banning platforms. They should be working to enact comprehensive privacy legislation that protects our private data no matter where we choose to engage online.”

What’s next?

The idea of trying to solve a real problem – the overgenerous gathering of user data by apps – by singling out TikTok’s Chinese history as the main reason that happens is misguided, reckons Nadine Farid Johnson, policy director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

“Congress should be concerned about platforms’ collection of Americans’ data, but this ban is not a solution,” she says. “China and other foreign adversaries will still be able to purchase Americans’ sensitive data from data brokers on the open market. And they could still engage in disinformation campaigns using American-owned platforms. Lawmakers should be addressing the real problem, not undermining the First Amendment.”

Not only does the effective TikTok ban undermine the United States’s First Amendment, but it also plays directly into the hands of those whom the country’s politicians are hoping to tackle.

Countries like China and Russia can now point to the actions the US has taken to tamp down TikTok’s success and use it to justify their anti-democratic crackdown on other apps.

It also sends a signal to the rest of the world that any non-US based tech giants will struggle to gain a foothold in the country – which is why, once it’s likely that the attempt to ban TikTok is defeated in court, few other countries are likely to follow in the US’s footsteps.

Because they know that their norms have already been shaped by American values, and now recognize that the US won’t have it any other way.

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