Legislators Discuss Banning TikTok Over Growing Security Concerns

The Senate recently passed a measure banning the app from government devices.

Legislators Discuss Banning TikTok Over Growing Security Concerns
Graphic courtesy of Paitoonpati / Adobe Stock

From the 12 Days of Broadband:

Year by year, tensions between the U.S. and China continue to grow. And in this Cold War 2.0, the battle over information technology and policy often appears to be at the heart of the conflict.

Chinese telecommunications equipment giant Huawei has been effectively barred from the U.S. market for well over a year. But the constraints are tightening. And while Huawei has been central to China’s global communications aspirations, disputes over technology are now affecting all sorts of Chinese-owned companies. Even ByteDance’s TikTok, arguably the world’s hottest social media company with more than 100 million U.S. users, now appears in jeopardy.

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After two decades in which the countries’ economies and technology industries converged, they are now coming apart. Remember the American perception of China at the time of the Beijing Summer Olympics of 2008? China was regarded as a global competitor, but not an adversary.

Contrast that with the near-boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics of 2022 by American officials over persecution of the Uyghurs and retrenchment of political freedom in Hong Kong. Just prior to this year’s games, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and declared that “friendship between the two States has no limits,” effectively blessing the Russian invasion of Ukraine that happened later in February.

And now that Xi has entered, in October, his 11th year of rule, he’s broken free of the two-term limit that had governed Chinese leaders in the modern era. Xi’s continuing hold on power seems to highlight divergences between the world’s two economic superpowers.

Take bans on Chinese hardware. In November, the Federal Communications Commission published a modification of certification rules that will bar technologies from the U.S. that are considered threats to national security.

The commission’s latest action will keep Huawei, ZTE and many other companies from gathering data on and surveilling American citizens. The action will also keep the FCC from issuing further authorizations for covered technologies, without which those technologies may not be imported to or marketed in the United States.

The FCC first took steps against these Chinese manufacturers in 2019 by disallowing the use of Universal Service Funds for their purchase.

In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the Secure Networks Act, requiring the FCC to prohibit the use of moneys it administers for the acquisition of designated communications equipment. The act promoted the removal of existing equipment deemed compromised through a $2 billion reimbursement program designed to “rip and replace” Huawei and other Chinese equipment out of telecommunications networks, particularly those of rural broadband providers.

The latest FCC action aims to stop entities from “re-branding” or “white labeling” equipment by those covered Chinese manufacturers.

And now legislators are going after Chinese-owned apps like TikTok.

On Dec. 14, the Senate unanimously passed a measure to ban TikTok from U.S. government devices, in a move designed to limit perceived information-security risks stemming from the social media app. The measure, by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., follows similar actions by state governments, including Maryland.

The app is itself is in jeopardy of being banned outright in the United States under a bill introduced on Dec. 13 by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. They said the move was warranted by the Chinese potentially using the video sharing platform to spy on Americans.

Speaking at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Dec. 7, Rick Lane, CEO of Iggy Ventures, said that he supported such a ban and predicted that it would happen within six months.

If that were to happen, information policy in the United States might look a lot more like that of China. There, American apps like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube are banned.

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