TikTok is facing a ban in the United States. What would that mean for New Zealand?

By rnz.co.nz

Anyone who has spent time on TikTok recently will be aware the social media platform is facing a ban in the United States, largely because of its parent company’s ties to China.

Photo: CFOTO / NurPhoto via AFP

For years, lawmakers have been concerned about Beijing’s influence over the application. But TikTok has denied its data or algorithms can be accessed or manipulated by the Chinese government.

On 13 March, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a measure to force TikTok to split from owner ByteDance or face a national ban.

Meanwhile, content creators say that would threaten their livelihoods.

What does all of this mean for Aotearoa New Zealand?

Background

TikTok chief executive officer Shou Zi Chew vowed to fight any potential ban and urged users to speak up for their rights. In a video he said: “This legislation if signed into law will lead to a ban of TikTok in the United States.

“It will also take billions of dollars out of the pockets of creators and small businesses.”

TikTok had an estimated 1 billion users worldwide and more than 170 million in the US.

The video-sharing app contributed US$24.2 billion to US Gross Domestic Product in 2023, according to a company-paid report. The report, by economics consultancy Oxford Economics, found TikTok supported more than 224,000 jobs in the US.

Numerous Western nations have expressed concerns that the Chinese government could access sensitive user data via TikTok and ByteDance. They have pointed to laws that allowed the government to secretly demand data from Chinese companies and citizens. They were also worried about the app being used to spread propaganda.

To date, there was no public evidence to suggest TikTok’s algorithm was controlled by the Chinese Communist Party to push government narratives. TikTok has said US user data was housed on servers controlled by Texas-based Oracle.

Chew, a Singaporean, has previously said ByteDance was not “an agent of China or any other country”.

Officials in Beijing have blasted the bill.

Beyond the US

Many countries have already restricted the popular app.

Most notably, India banned TikTok in 2020, over security concerns after a border clash with China. The ban was made permanent in January 2021. India was the app’s biggest overseas market at the time, according to reports.

Canada, Australia, Britain, the European Union and New Zealand have prohibited TikTok on government devices.

In March 2023, Parliamentary Service chief executive Rafael Gonzalez-Montero announced TikTok would be removed from all devices with access to the parliamentary network.

Gonzalez-Montero told RNZ the ban was still in place.

“The app has been banned from Parliament devices due to privacy and security concerns following advice from cyber security experts, and discussions with other government agencies and countries.”

TikTok was the only app banned on Parliamentary devices, he said.

In December, Australia’s privacy watchdog launched an inquiry into whether TikTok had breached the privacy of Australians through the use of marketing pixels, tracking people’s online habits.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner said they could not comment on the Australian investigation, but “we continue to watch he actions of our counterpart regulators with interest”.

Although TikTok was developed with homegrown Chinese technology, it has never been accessible in mainland China. Chinese users used a similar app subject to strict state controls called Douyin, also owned by ByteDance.

Fears for businesses

“It sounds as though the US is threatened by not being able to control TikTok,” said Rhiannon Baldock, an Auckland-based food content specialist and creator.

“All our lives are on social media. Who’s to say TikTok is more dangerous than other sites?”

Baldock started creating digital content about food in 2014. Now, she also works as a consultant with different food brands and agencies.

Thanks to its algorithm, TikTok provided a level playing field for people to go viral, in contrast to other apps such as Instragram that favoured more polished and consistent content requiring bigger budgets, she said.

“It’s created a big change in how brands see what people want to consume … people want to see everyday content and real people.”

In 2022, Baldock posted two “very simple” recipe videos that became popular and helped increase her following from fewer than 2000 to more than 10,000.

“That’s a real example of how accessible TikTok is for everyone. It gives businesses, creators and people the same opportunities.”

Small businesses were most likely to be affected by a ban, she said. “A lot of small businesses could die overnight because TikTok is their source of income. It would be awfully intimidating to have to generate that sort of audience elsewhere.”

It was hard to know how a US TikTok ban would affect users in New Zealand, but “I see a lot of American content on my feed”, she said.

Intelligence agency advice

Andrew Clark, director-general of the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) and government chief information security officer, said individual government agencies were responsible for assessing their own risk when deciding what to install on their devices and systems.

But decisions must be in line with the requirements of the New Zealand Information Security Manual and Protective Security Requirements.

When asked about TikTok specifically, Clark said the GCSB provided “country and vendor agnostic” guidance.

In April 2023, the National Cyber Security Centre released advice for government agencies making risk-based decisions about the use of social media applications on government devices.

The advice highlighted the risks of allowing a social media company access to sensitive information, “which can be potentially misused to collect information about a government agency and its staff”, he said.

“For example, a malicious use of location information is that your location can be tracked to build an understanding of your movement …

“Other risks include enabling the app to record your activities without your knowledge and access your documents and files.”

Why TikTok?

Allyn Robins, senior consultant at Brainbox Institute, said the main difference between TikTok and other platforms was its ties to China and efforts to ban it in the US seemed to be “primarily driven by politics”.

It was always going to be subject to greater scrutiny from the US and its allies than Western-owned companies, he said.

“It is also theoretically more vulnerable than other platforms to pressure from the Chinese government to either share user information or allow platform manipulation.”

While it was true TikTok collected huge amounts of data on its users, most of that was relevant only to TikTok itself and advertisers.

“The information that would be of use to Chinese authorities could be obtained in many other ways, such as from data brokers,” he said.

Again, TikTok could “theoretically” be a vehicle for cyber attacks but there were other “equally effective vehicles that would not risk destroying a multi-billion dollar success story for China’s technology industry”.

It would also be difficult to effectively use the platform to spread propaganda without being “extremely obvious to users”, he added.

Robins said it was impossible to rule out TikTok allowing the Chinese government to access user information or manipulating the platform, but there was no compelling evidence to suggest it had acted in a way that was “outside the norm” for a large, social media platform.

Bill’s broader impact

TikTok opened its first New Zealand office in Auckland in 2022. Privacy Commissioner Michael Webster met with company representatives in September that year to discuss children’s and young people’s privacy.

The commissioner’s office was working on a project to determine whether the current regulatory framework to protect minor’s privacy rights was adequate. Next steps would be announced later in 2024, a spokesperson said.

The effect of a US TikTok ban on New Zealand would depend on what steps the company took to comply, the spokesperson added.

It would remain subject to the New Zealand Privacy Act, like all social media companies doing business in the country.

“This includes complying with the requirements to take particular care when collecting personal information from children and young people.”

What’s next?

The bill, that passed the House with bipartisan support, would require Beijing-based ByteDance to sell off TikTok within six months or face a nationwide ban. A quick sale is very unlikely, according to commentators and the app. And even if ByteDance could find a buyer, China might not let a sale occur.

Now, the debate shifts to the Senate. Members have called for slower deliberation, despite fears more time could allow the company to quash the negotiations.

If the bill passed a Senate vote, it would need to be signed by President Joe Biden to become law. (He has said he would sign it.)

Even if that happened, it would likely face legal challenges on the grounds of free speech.

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