Experts compare the US’s targetting of China through the ban to the Cold War confrontation between Washington and Moscow.
On Monday, Sweden’s military banned its staff from installing Chinese-owned TikTok on official devices, joining several other western nations and government agencies in clamping down on the highly popular short-form video-sharing app.
Over the past few weeks, the US, European Commission, the Netherlands, Britain, Canada, Norway, France and even New Zealand have banned the app on work devices over fears of user data harvesting by the communist government in Beijing.
The primary concern raised by governments banning TikTok is that the Chinese government could use that user data to spread misinformation.
As the ban keeps growing, the BBC has asked its staff to install the app on corporate devices only if there is a “justified business reason” to do so. Earlier this month, Denmark’s DR became the first national broadcaster to ban the app from staff’s work devices.
TikTok — owned by the Chinese company ByteDance — is available in over 150 countries and has an estimated one billion active users. In comparison, Facebook has a user base of 2.9 billion and YouTube 2.2 billion.
Matt Navarra, social media expert and industry analyst, tells TRT World that the West’s concerns are not because the app collects user data and device information as it is not unique to TikTok, as other social media platforms work in a similar way.
For the US and other Western countries, the worries stem from the simple premise that the Chinese government can potentially use the app as a tool of propaganda or to gather information about significant individuals, particularly in prominent positions in government and global companies.
“This (threat of data mining) doesn’t apply to other US-based social media parent companies, such as Meta and Twitter,” he adds. “TikTok has been caught doing things which have increased people's suspicions of the platform. For example, using location tracking activity on journalists from BuzzFeed and the Financial Times in the US.”
Though TikTok has claimed to have fired their “rogue employees” who collected user data, it has done little to assuage the West. The Chinese government has separately denied ever asking companies to hand over data gathered overseas.
“This was very bad PR, even though TikTok calls these people rogue employees who acted on their own accord,” he says.
“These initiatives have a snowball effect, and we'll probably see many more countries and big organisations like the BBC implement some sort of restrictions on their staff, particularly if the US does decide to go ahead with the ban nationwide.”
‘Cold War-style confrontation’
Geopolitical analyst Geoffrey Miller feels there could be “some legitimate security concerns” regarding TikTok’s usage in specific circumstances though the countries have to present hard evidence of any data misuse.
Miller says that the app is attracting greater scrutiny partly due to its success and popularity with a younger audience. But he feels that decisions on bans need to be made on a principled basis and not because they are successful, or only when they become successful. "Western countries and companies also benefit from the competition that apps like TikTok provide," he adds.
According to Miller, the growing popularity of TikTok has sparked a shadow technology war between the two superpowers as geopolitical tensions intensify between China and the US.
He says that this war is being fought on several levels, including the US’ ban on transferring semiconductor manufacturing technology to China. “In turn, these moves are only likely to spur China’s determination for greater self-reliance and reduced cooperation with the West. There are parallels with the 'space race' between the US and Soviet Union during the Cold War,” he says.
“Ultimately, this new technology battle between China and the US is only going to take us further down the path of a Cold War-style confrontation that most would prefer to avoid.”
Navarra also feels that the campaign against TikTok would strain political and commercial relationships between the two economic superpowers as TikTok is one of China’s big exports with success stories in the tech world.
“For the US to implement so many restrictions and limitations or potentially trying to force ByteDance to sell TikTok will not be seen favourably by the Chinese government,” Miller adds.
US doubles down
Last month, the White House informed federal agencies that they had 30 days to remove the app from government-owned devices. Some agencies, such as the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State, already have restrictions in place.
“The Biden-Harris Administration has invested heavily in defending our nation’s digital infrastructure and curbing foreign adversaries’ access to Americans’ data,” said Chris DeRusha, the federal chief information security officer, stating that the guidance is part of the administration's ongoing initiatives to protect the country’s digital infrastructure and guarantee the privacy and security of the citizens.
Amid growing global concern over the social media platform, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified last week before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where the US lawmakers aggressively questioned Chew over its alleged ties to the Chinese government and the company’s data-security practices.
Chew, in over five hours of testimony, repeatedly denied the app’s parent company ByteDance is owned or controlled by the Chinese government and asserted it is a private company.
READ MORE: TikTok boss grilled in US Congress over alleged China ties