TikTok's days in the U.S. may be numbered.
Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced the No TikTok on Government Devices Act on Wednesday to effectively ban the app from the country. The bill asks President Joe Biden to use International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) to block and prohibit transactions with TikTok's parent company ByteDance within 30 days. It also orders that within 120 days of enactment, the Director of National Intelligence will have to brief Congress on the threats to national security posed by TikTok, especially the potential for the Chinese government to collect U.S. user data. Representative Ken Buck (R-Colo. 4th District) is also submitting supporting legislation.
"TikTok poses a threat to all Americans who have the app on their devices," Hawley said in a statement. "It opens the door for the Chinese Communist Party to access Americans' personal information, keystrokes, and location through aggressive data harvesting. Banning it on government devices was a step in the right direction, but now is the time to ban it nationwide to protect the American people."
More than half of U.S. states have banned TikTok on government devices, while many others are mulling blocking the app. Many public universities, which use state funding, have also blocked use of the app from their public Wi-Fi, including the University of Wisconsin system and University System of Georgia, as well as public universities in Oklahoma, Iowa, and Idaho.
But since many of the changes hit The University of Texas at Austin in mid-January, not much has changed especially among student usage.
"So far, it seems to have had very little effect on them," said Eric Webber, University of Texas at Austin professor of advertising and public relations. "They still use it the same way they have in the past and to the same degree."
Simple workarounds, like simply using cell phone networks or just using the app at home, were quickly in play. TikTok, which Insider Intelligence estimates will reach 834.3 million global users by the end of 2023, still remains one of the fastest growing social media apps.
"They're at the age where there is a natural resistance to authority," Webber said. "So they like to push back, but really what they're finding and what I'm finding is that if I'm on campus, and I get on my phone, and I look at TikTok, it will show that it's blocked. Then I just switch over to my wireless network, and it works fine."
While Webber acknowledges there is always a risk for data leaking especially at a university where medical and defense research is being undertaken, Weber says the concerns are more over competition over knowledge rather than national security. The public isn't concerned as well, considering that most social media platforms and many other companies have undergone data hacks.
"Most of the people I've talked with or dealt with feel like that it's not a much bigger threat than than any other digital platform," he said.
However, the bigger impact will be on TikTok and its pitch to brands as it tries to grow its advertising business, Webber pointed out. Webber, who also consults for advertising agencies, said it is getting riskier to build something on a platform that could disappear at any time. This also opens up the door for competitors like Meta and Google to build out their own products like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts respectively. TikTok was expected to reach $8.75 billion in ad revenue by the end of the year, per Insider Intelligence.
"You have a ton of people who are out marketing TikTok to brands because it is getting more popular, and I certainly have to think it's going to affect your sales pitch if it's 'I want to sell you something that you may or may not be able to use tomorrow,'" he said. "It'd be like going to the car dealership and you pick out a car you want, and they say 'Great, and it might be here tomorrow, and it might run when you get here or it might not. You can roll the dice and pay me anyway.'"
TikTok's potential block also puts all the time and effort creators put into building their accounts at risk, notes mobile website builder Universe CEO Joe Cohen.
"For as long as creators are renting time on platforms, whether they be TikTok or Instagram or other Facebook properties, they don't actually control their distribution or their audience," Cohen explained. "If the rug is pulled out under them, whether it's because of a government thing or a business interest from Facebook or likewise, they are vulnerable. So over time, they're going to need to own their own platform, if they want to have that kind of security."
Universe has seen a growth in TikTok and other social users building sites to host their original content. Talk about bans could slow down TikTok's growth.
"They want to own their relationship with their followers so that they're not completely indebted to a TikTok to an Instagram, and that is growing over time," he said. "These brands obviously accelerate that trend. What we're seeing but ultimately creators want ownership. They want ownership of their platform. They want ownership of their audience and a direct line of communication with those folks."