TLDR: Lots of headlines tout a possible TikTok ban but (based on the facts) a total ban is unlikely. A potential sell-off of TikTok from its parent company could also prevent a ban.
“Is TikTok going to get banned? What does this mean for my brand?”
With 94+ million US consumers and creators on TikTok, and brands now using it as a major part of their customer acquisition strategy, many are keeping a close eye on this conversation.
In 2022, brands spent more than $5 billion on ads alone on TikTok. That’s not even counting the influencer marketing investments on TikTok. These are projected to increase this year thanks to the great results that brands are seeing on the platform.
But if you’re worried about TikTok being banned, don’t freak out just yet!
The notion that everyday TikTok users are facing a widespread ban is misleading. Below we break down the facts behind the ban. We urge brands to watch to this story without going into panic mode.
A Brief Timeline of Attempts to Ban TikTok
Does this story feel like deja vu in 2023?
That’s because we all discussed the potential of a TikTok ban back in 2020.
If you’re out of the loop as to why this is all happening, we’ll catch you up to speed.
Important background info: TikTok is owned by a Chinese Internet company, ByteDance.
July 2020: Rumors swirl that the United States may ban TikTok due to Washington's concerns that the Chinese government could have control over an app that so many Americans use. Meanwhile, TikTok positions itself to be sold back to an American company. They instate an American CEO (former chairman of Disney), ensuring that its data centers are not in China and separated TikTok’s American operations from its parent company. This wasn't difficult since TikTok was originally an American company named Musical.ly, purchased by ByteDance in 2017.
August 2020: President Trump signs an executive order banning TikTok if the app is not sold to an American company within 45 days. Oracle and other investors seek a bid to purchase TikTok’s US operations.
September 2020: TikTok files an injunction to prevent the app’s impending ban. The ban stalls as a result.
December 2020: A federal judge blocks the Trump administration’s TikTok ban. Lawmakers call the proposed ban “arbitrary." The ruling also cites a lack of a “reasonable alternative before banning TikTok.”
June 2021: Under the Biden administration, Trump’s TikTok ban attempts are officially dropped. The new administration calls for reviews of apps like TikTok for security threats. Their goal is to take an “evidence-based” approach.
June 2022: TikTok officially transfers its traffic to US-based Oracle servers. Prior to this, user data was stored in TikTok’s US-based data centers in Virginia with backups in Singapore. Despite rumors, TikTok claims that the Chinese government never accessed US data.
December 8, 2022: TikTok touts new security plans under the oversight of national security agencies. The platform announces a Trust and Safety Team in the US to protect user data and privacy.
December 22, 2022: Forbes releases a report stating “An internal investigation by ByteDance, the parent company of video-sharing platform TikTok, found that employees tracked multiple journalists covering the company, improperly gaining access to their IP addresses and user data in an attempt to identify whether they had been in the same locales as ByteDance employees.” Lawmakers propose bipartisan legislation supporting a ban on federal devices.
December 27, 2022: TikTok is banned from the mobile devices of lawmakers and staff in the US House of Representatives.
December 30, 2022: A revised ban is issued which restricts TikTok from the mobile devices of all federal government employees. Some exceptions are made for research and law enforcement purposes.
March 1, 2023: The US House Foreign Affairs Committee votes to give President Biden approval to ban TikTok. Reporting by Reuters notes that this would be "the most far-reaching US restriction on any social media app" if a ban were to happen. TikTok releases an official statement calling the legislation "rushed." The statement also describes the proposed ban as having a "considerable negative impact on the free speech rights of millions of Americans."
March 7, 2023: A bipartisan group of US senators introduces the RESTRICT Act. The proposed legislation would give the federal government new powers to restrict and potentially ban technologies coming from China. This would include TikTok.
March 23, 2023: TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies in front of Congress in a five-hour hearing. Chew touted TikTok's commitment to security and free speech. Congress grilled him on data privacy and TikTok's ties to China.
April, 14, 2023: Montana becomes the first state to approve a full, state-wide ban on TikTok. According to NPR, the ban would not go into effect until January 2024 if it was actually enacted. Some critics feel that Montana's ban is largely performative and would be impossible to enforce. Beyond that, it's likely that a federal decision on the TikTok ban will be made prior to January 2024.
The Latest Updates
Here’s a quick summary of the latest updates so far (as of April 20, 2023):
- TikTok's status is still up in the air. Public opinion remains split when it comes to a potential ban.
- Many politicians are divided on the issue of introducing new privacy laws. This has already caused some anti-TikTok legislation to stall. Although TikTok’s ban has bipartisan support, it also has bipartisan opposition.
- Talks of a TikTok sell-off continue. As reported by Bloomberg, TikTok divesting from ByteDance is viewed by the app's leadership as a "last resort" but remains on the table. Bloomberg Intelligence analysts note that TikTok's US-based business could be valued anywhere between $40 billion and $50 billion.
- TikTok recently rolled out an algorithm re-trainer and new parental screen time controls. These updates directly address some of Congress’ concerns.
- As of now, the Biden Administration’s stance on TikTok is similar to the Trump Administration’s back in 2020. ByteDance selling TikTok to an American entity would be ideal. In an ironic twist, the White House is currently recruiting TikTok influencers in an attempt to reach young voters ahead of the 2024 US presidential election.
Why Calling This Latest News a “Ban” Might Be Misleading
Let’s break down the actual scale of this ban and the chance of the US actually banning it across the country:
- The scope of the current ban is small. How many government devices really have TikTok on them? I hope our government employees aren’t spending their time doing TikTok dances at work.
- The current ban doesn’t mean that government employees can’t use TikTok. It simply means that they can’t have TikTok on their work devices. Note that politicians on TikTok were actually an emerging trend during the 2022 midterm elections.
- Banning apps on gov't devices isn't new. Fact: the Army banned TikTok from government phones back in 2019. Consider also that the Pentagon banned fitness tracker apps back in 2018.
Why a Total TikTok Ban is Unlikely
Brands shouldn’t assume the worst when it comes to the future of TikTok.
Legal experts and critics say that a bigger TikTok ban on personal devices is unlikely. Below are a few points to consider as to why a nationwide ban probably won’t happen.
For starters, it would be messy. As noted by NPR, a total ban would be largely politically motivated and unlikely. According to legal experts: “Banning a communication platform would raise First Amendment concerns.”
Public policy professor Milton Mueller says it best in an interview with CBS:
"There's probably a 90% chance that that would be ruled unconstitutional . . . If you ban TikTok, it's not the Chinese Government that would be silenced; it's the 150 million American users of the app."
There’s no real precedent for a ban like this. When apps in the US are banned outright, it’s usually on the basis of illegal activity such as gambling or pirating music. Social media apps are a different beast. With no precedent, there would likely be months (or years!) of discussion because of the First Amendment concerns.
Americans love Tiktok. Again, there are over 94 million TikTok users in the United States alone. TikTok’s status as one of the fastest-growing social media companies is well-documented. As noted by Devin Coldewey in TechCrunch, a nationwide ban would be wildly unpopular.
The legal path to a TikTok ban is unclear. According to Coldewey: “The FCC can’t do it (no jurisdiction). Despite the supposed national security threat, the Pentagon can’t do it (ditto). The feds can’t force Apple and Google to do it (First Amendment). Congress won’t do it (see above). An executive order won’t do it (too broad). No judge will do it (no plausible case). All paths to bans are impractical for one reason or another.”
It’s bad for business. If nothing else, a total TikTok ban would be bad for business given how many US-based investment firms have stakes in the platform. A ban could result in bipartisan backlash from investors and stakeholders across the country.
There are many other off-ramps that don’t include a ban to make politicians feel better about security concerns. TikTok doesn’t need to be banned to make government officials feel better about security concerns. Other options include:
The platform has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to protecting user data:
“We know we are among the most scrutinized platforms from a security standpoint, and we aim to remove any doubt about the security of US user data. We're dedicated to earning and maintaining the trust of our community and will continue to work every day to protect our platform and provide a safe, welcoming, and enjoyable experience for our community.”
Of course, action speaks louder than words. In December 2022, TikTok announced its Trust and Safety team as well as a total of 40,000 professionals dedicated to keeping the platform safe. TikTok’s US-based team is adamant that they will comply with national security reviews and raise their standards accordingly.
What Does All of This Mean for Brands?
Touting a “TikTok ban” gets people buzzing. That said, it’s still just a headline right now.
A total ban is speculation until we get more details or major changes happen to TikTok.
We urge brands to pay attention to what’s happening on TikTok but not to needlessly worry themselves. The platform is still operating as normal and brands should likewise keep doing what they’re doing.
And of course, we’ll continue to follow this story as it develops!
If you have any questions about TikTok or what your brand should do about its presence, get in touch with one of our consumer-to-consumer marketing specialists to figure out how to move forward.
This article was first published in January 2023. It was last updated April 20, 2023.