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A TikTok Ban Would Make for an Incredibly Strange Day on the Internet

Last chance to see? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

Last week, in a party-line vote, the Republican-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to advance a bill that would give President Biden the authority to sanction or ban TikTok. Over the weekend, Democratic senator Mark Warner announced that, in partnership with Republican John Thune, he would be introducing a similar measure in the Senate.

This sudden lurch toward a full ban of the platform follows years of debate over how to handle the rise of the wildly popular Chinese-owned platform that has, since its sudden breakout in 2018, been beating its American rivals at their own game. It would be unprecedented. It could also throw the tech industry into chaos.

A full ban faces some political obstacles. Republicans are united in their calls for an outright ban of TikTok, which the House committee chair, Michael McCaul, described as a “spy balloon in your phone.” (Republican representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin opted for “digital fentanyl.”) Democrats are more divided on strategy. Some are receptive to a ban but not this type of ban; others, including Elizabeth Warren, have suggested dealing with TikTok through broader, industrywide regulation. Most are following the Biden administration’s lead, deferring to an ongoing investigation into TikTok’s operations by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

Still, it’s worth thinking about what TikTok’s sudden disappearance would actually mean. Since Donald Trump’s thwarted 2020 attempts to shut down the app and then force its sale to an American firm, pressure to do something has continued to mount; the prospect has become more, not less, realistic since he left office. Numerous states have instituted partial bans of their own, restricting the use of TikTok on government hardware and at colleges. Last week, the Biden administration announced that federal agencies had 30 days to remove TikTok from government devices; the United States military has prohibited the app for years. Similar limited bans are in effect in parts of Europe and in Canada; in 2020, as part of a wide crackdown on Chinese-owned online services, India banned the app completely. TikTok — whose parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in Beijing — is already friendless in Washington, D.C. A more credible attempt at a ban is just one serious international incident, or one presidential election, away.

The main animating factor in the push to ban TikTok is the app’s Chinese ownership and its alleged ties to the Chinese government — it is, in this view, a national-security story. But the broader case being mounted against TikTok is familiar. It’s a social-media app that solicits and collects content and personal information from millions of daily American users who use the app on devices that collect and share information about their locations and other habits. These same users are obviously somehow influenced by the content they encounter on the app, which serves them videos through an opaque system. It’s beloved by many of its users for whom it’s an unparalleled connection to the broader culture. For others, it’s a nightmarish venue full of conspiracies, disturbing content, and various detriments to mental health; for a significant few, it’s a source of work and a place to rapidly find large audiences. Mostly, really, it’s a way for people to pass time on their phones. It’s a thoroughly disturbing and disturbingly appealing take on the commons, a massive profit-driven enclosure built around staggering ranges of human interaction for the purpose of selling ads, which is to say, the matter of ownership aside, it is fundamentally indistinguishable from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, from which it has been ruthlessly siphoning users since 2018 and which have, in return, shamelessly copied its core features to no avail.

TikTok’s alleged ties to the Chinese government are a serious matter, but here, too, the line between TikTok and its domestic competitors isn’t as clear as it might seem — the type of data that TikTok could collect and theoretically pass on to the Chinese government is already available for acquisition through a wide range of poorly regulated data brokers courtesy of America’s own tech firms. (The loudest voices against a possible ban are outside government and concerned primarily with speech and precedent: The ACLU has come out against the House bill on the basis of constitutionality; the progressive group Fight for the Future casts it as futile and damaging and advocates instead for comprehensive social-media privacy regulation.)

Still, a ban holds obvious appeal for lawmakers. The core concern about TikTok — that its parent company is subject to security laws in China that might compel it to share user data with the government — is credible and has been borne out by investigative reporting. Public opinion around the influence of social media in general has soured somewhat, and taking action against TikTok represents a narratively and legally simpler option for doing something about the influence of big tech, at least compared to a ground-up regulatory approach. Taking aggressive action against American social-media companies would be legally complicated and politically fraught; TikTok’s connections to an already sanctioned government make the crusade against it easier to compartmentalize as part of a trade war, or as an exceptional matter of internal relations, rather than the sort of thing that otherwise similar American tech companies would need to worry about.

In practice, though, a ban would be a strange and alien experience for American internet users — a major part of their daily digital routines simply deleted from their phones or, at least, made much harder to access.

The American tech industry, too, would enter uncharted territory. The Chinese government’s approach to the internet was censorious from the start. Still, it was accompanied by an aggressive industrial policy intended to foster a homegrown tech and internet industry, resulting, eventually, in successful firms like ByteDance. A TikTok ban would be a clumsy step in a similar direction. It could open the door for a homegrown TikTok competitor or clear the way for a different sort of successor, whatever that looks like. (Twitter arguably provided an opening for TikTok when it killed Vine, a struggling short-form-video app that peaked at 100 million users, in 2016.) The downstream effects on the commerce and politics would be immediate, major, and no easier to predict than TikTok’s are now (the app’s influence on the American music industry alone has been impossible to miss). Countless social-media-adjacent jobs would be altered in an instant. Some would disappear entirely.

The consequences get only weirder from there. Banning TikTok would function as piecemeal industrial policy. It could fortify American tech giants, many of whom are already under antitrust scrutiny by the federal government in obvious ways — TikTok’s success has come at Meta’s expense and has already thrown the company into an existential crisis — as well as more subtle ones: Temu and Shein, two Chinese-owned e-commerce companies that represent the first credible threat to Amazon in years, owe much of their success to promotion on TikTok and would struggle without it. It could be a great day, in other words, for the domestic companies with which many of the same politicians eager to ban TikTok have also been at war.

Or … maybe not? Critics and lawmakers with a narrow focus on “spying” and “digital espionage” tend to either minimize or genuinely fail to grapple with just how central TikTok has become on the American internet and in the culture in general. It’s the envy of all of its American competitors in almost every way, and while its disappearance might free up some advertising budgets to be reclaimed by Meta, Google, and Twitter, and could certainly create new opportunities for some of them, it could just as easily mark an abrupt turn away from a certain sort of social-media company. From the beginning, TikTok succeeded by taking a maximalist approach to an already dominant style of social media. It was Facebook and Instagram and Vine and Twitter and Snapchat but more and with less shame — a combination of every known engagement strategy and addictive feature into a product so brazenly aggressive and habit forming as to defy critique. Its peers have spent the past five years chasing it down and failing to catch it, often losing their identities, as well as their most active users, in the process. TikTok’s success sucked the life out of the last era of American social-media firms, which were already showing their age, and left some of their products unrecognizable and uncanny. What’s left for TikTok users, should it disappear, is a collection of platforms that have been thoroughly reconfigured around the existence of TikTok; its disappearance, rather than saving them, could reveal how thoroughly they’ve lost their way.

A TikTok ban would, above all, make for an incredibly strange day on the internet, the sort of thing that would seem implausible to American internet users even as it was happening. It’s plenty likely that it won’t — among other possibilities, a forced sale to an American company, much like what happened to the dating app Grindr in 2020, could satisfy lawmakers’ needs without inviting as much backlash. But don’t assume it can’t.

TikTok Ban Would Make for Very Strange Day on the Internet