Lab Platform Governance, Media and Technology (PGMT)


Unpacking the US TikTok ban

by Rebecca Scharlach

TL;DR: TikTok, one of the most popular platforms worldwide, is seen as a security risk for the United States. But why?

(A meme about the TikTok ban. For more, klick here)

Can the US government really ban TikTok? Do they really want to do that? Unsurprisingly, many American academics have been following, writing about the recent developments, and have inspired this piece. Yet, there has been little input from European academics. This might be due to the fact that our relationship with TikTok feels very different right now. Last month, German chancellor Olaf Scholz joined TikTok and the marketing for the 2024 election for the European Parliament is going strong on the platform. The introduction of the Digital Service Act (DSA) has led to heavy regulation of “large online platforms,” including TikTok. However, a ban on TikTok in the US would have consequences that would reach beyond American borders. Therefore, even though this ban may not technically affect us, we will still experience its consequences in practice. In this blog post, I will summarize the events that led to the proposed TikTok ban in the United States, discuss the general issues that TikTok has been facing, explain the relevance of the First Amendment to these issues, and outline the potential consequences of this ban. I aim to cover events from a non-US perspective to fill gaps for readers less familiar with US jurisdictions.

The idea of a TikTok ban in the United States has been floating around for a few years now. Initially, the Trump administration had issued executive orders in 2020 seeking to ban TikTok due to national security concerns regarding its Chinese ownership. However, after legal challenges and negotiations between ByteDance and various US entities, including Oracle and Walmart, TikTok proposed “Project Texas” and created a TikTok U.S. Data Security initiative (more on that later) to address security concerns while allowing TikTok to continue operating in the US. But this was not the end of the story: What followed were hearings with CEO Shou Chew in 2023, the implementation of Project Texas, TikTok bans on several US campuses, and attempted public state bans (see Sprangler, 2023). Last month, President Joe Biden signed a bill requiring ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to sell the app to a US-based buyer within nine months. If ByteDance fails to comply, TikTok faces a nationwide ban (take a look at the video where the house passes the bill to ban TikTok). To quote Kate Klonick and Margo Williams take on it: Let’s talk about the discourse around The Anti-TikTok Law”.

TikTok/ByteDance reacted very quickly, saying that they currently have no intention of divesting:

“This unconstitutional law is a TikTok ban, and we will challenge it in court. We believe the facts and the law are clearly on our side, and we will ultimately prevail. The fact is, we have invested billions of dollars to keep U.S. data safe and our platform free from outside influence and manipulation. This ban would devastate seven million businesses and silence 170 million Americans. As we continue to challenge this unconstitutional ban, we will continue investing and innovating to ensure TikTok remains a space where Americans of all walks of life can safely come to share their experiences, find joy, and be inspired.” (emphasis added)

TikTok, 2024

Before discussing the possible implications of this ban, let’s examine the issues that TikTok has faced in the US and Europe over the past years.

TikTok’s issues

The attention given to TikTok by both the US and EU indicates the larger concerns surrounding data privacy, (trans-)national security, and the regulation of technology companies operating globally. These concerns fall under three main categories:

1. Data Privacy Concerns: Both the US and EU have expressed concerns about TikTok’s handling of user data, including data security, privacy violations, and potential ties to the Chinese government. The last part is especially true for the US and the main publicly-stated reason for a ban. Since the implementation of the Digital Service Act (DSA) in the European Union, TikTok has legal obligations to regularly report on these topics (see TikTok, 2023).

2. National Security: The US government has named TikTok’s potential requirement to share user data with the Chinese government due to China’s national security laws as a key factor for the proposed ban. This has raised concerns about user data security, particularly considering TikTok’s vast user base in the United States. TikTok has been addressing security concerns through “Project Texas”, a $1.5 bn initiative initiated in cooperation with US tech giant Oracle. TikTok describes the project as follows:

Put simply, Project Texas is an unprecedented initiative dedicated to making every American on TikTok feel safe, with confidence that their data is secure and the platform is free from outside influence. We’ve spent the last two years developing a framework through discussions with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), and we’ve spent roughly $1.5 billion to date on implementation. Project Texas puts the concepts of transparency and accountability into action by addressing national security concerns head-on with concrete, measurable solutions.

TikTok, 2024

Project Texas has not had the intended effect. Supporters of the ban argue that TikTok has not been transparent about how it handles user data and its connections to the Chinese government. This lack of transparency has fueled suspicions and regulatory scrutiny.

3. Data: To address concerns regarding TikTok’s data practices, regulatory bodies in both the US and EU have taken action. In the US, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has launched an investigation. Congress and U.S. lawmakers have been urging President Biden to prohibit the app in the United States for quite some time now (see also Maddox, 2023). In April 2024, US President Joe Biden signed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, which effectively bans or forces the sale of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance.

Meanwhile, in the EU, officials have been scrutinizing TikTok’s data policies and practices to ensure they comply with GDPR regulations. One example for this is TikTok Lite’s reward function, which allows users to earn money for certain tasks. The new app has been available in France and Spain since April and is now probed if it endangers the mental health of younger users and thus violates EU regulations (see Hoeppner, 2024). At the same time, the DSA has forced TikTok to implement changes to their infrastructures, or as TikTok frames it: 

A key objective of the DSA is to give users of digital services even greater insight into the work we do to keep them safe, and provide them with additional tools – and ultimately, greater choice – over their own experience of the platform. This includes requiring greater transparency about the content moderation activities we engage in.

TikTok, 2023

The First Amendment argument

One of the main arguments against banning TikTok – by critics of the ban and TikTok itself, is that it would violate one of America’s core values anchored in the First Amendment: Freedom of expression. In a recent essay on this topic, Scott Nover wrote:

[…] a ban of TikTok would eliminate an important place for Americans to speak and be heard. It would be a travesty for the free speech rights of hundreds of millions of Americans who depend on the app to communicate, express themselves, and even make a living. And perhaps more importantly, it would further balkanize the global internet and disconnect us from the world.

Nover, 2024

Moreover, CEO Shou Zi Chew uploaded a video right after the news of the ban proceeding in which he ensured US users to fight for their rights to use TikTok to keep the diverse community safe and free to share. In this statement, he also says:

It [the ban] is actually ironic because the freedom of expression on TikTok reflects the same American values that make the United States a beacon of freedom. (emphasis added)

Shou Chew, TikTok CEO

However, is banning a social media platform violating the First Amendment? The answer is that we currently don’t know. American law professors believe that ByteDance will have a strong First Amendment case in its lawsuit against the US (see Brodkin, 2024). Legal scholars argue that TikTok’s potential ban raises significant First Amendment concerns, as it restricts the app’s ability to disseminate user-generated content. Furthermore, while national security concerns have been cited as the primary reason for considering a ban on TikTok, experts suggest that the government would need to provide concrete evidence of harm to justify such an action. In an interview, law professor Eric Goldman references past legal battles involving restrictions on speech and communication platforms, such as the legal challenges against the Communications Decency Act, which could be helpful to understand potential legal arguments surrounding the TikTok ban. Another aspect is international implications, including potential diplomatic fallout and the precedent it could set for other countries to restrict digital platforms based on national security concerns. Overall, any attempt to ban TikTok in the United States will likely face significant legal hurdles due to First Amendment protections, and the US government would need to provide compelling evidence to justify such a move (see also Frankel, 2023; Jaffer, 2023; Elliot & Kelly, 2024).

For further reading, I recommend the Q&A with leading experts in law and digital media studies to weigh in on the US’s divest-or-ban order against TikTok by the The Institute for Rebooting Social Media (May 2024).

Creators as advocators

If the ban proceeds, American-based business owners and content creators building their livelihood on TikTok will probably be the ones hit the hardest. In a recent article, Moizes Mendes II highlighted creators’ concerns about losing their livelihoods and the communities they’ve built on the platform. Many creators express frustration and anxiety over the uncertainty surrounding TikTok’s future and its potential impact on their careers. TikTok is seen as a way to connect people and provide a creative outlet. However, TikTok is not their only option. A quick move to Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts is predictable, with Meta (Instagram’s parent company) being the biggest winner in this scenario.

Creator studies research shows how users, especially professional users, have become advocates for themselves (e.g., Are & Briggs, 2023; Bishop, 2019) and the platforms they choose to promote their work on (e.g., Burgess & Green, 2018). The latter aspect has become increasingly important for the debate over TikTok in the US. In 2023, CEO Shou Zi Chew made his first-ever appearance online with a TikTok video to call on U.S.-based users to show support for TikTok and make videos to show how much TikTok means to them and how it influenced their lives for the better. Recently, he made a similar plea, engaging American users in the debate and asking them to show support for TikTok to show Congress and Biden how much TikTok means to them. At the same time, prominent creators are already planning for a life post-TikTok (see Ahene, 2024). In recent interviews with creators, Andy Cloyd, CEO of Superfiliate said:

At the end of the day, professional Creators will go where they can make the most money, and, in most instances, that is going to be where the eyeballs are. Where creators go will also be content dependent, Reels/Shorts is a very natural next place to go for TikTokers given the similarities in content formats and content distribution methods those platforms use (algorithmic rather than feed based).

Cloyd, 2024

What are the potential consequences of a TikTok ban?

The TikTok ban in the USA has caused a clash between security concerns and freedom of expression. On one hand, there are concerns about data privacy and national security due to TikTok’s Chinese ownership. However, with initiatives such as Project Texas, TikTok has been actively working to take responsibility, show how TikTok stores US data on American soil, and establish data procedures that are similar to how US tech firms such as Meta proceed with foreign data. TikTok argues that this ban is “unconstitutional” (Seth, 2024), but we don’t actually know if that is true. What we know is that banning TikTok raises serious questions about First Amendment rights and sets a precedent for restricting digital platforms based on national security concerns.

The proposed ban on TikTok would have far-reaching consequences for American businesses and content creators who depend on the platform for their livelihoods. Many of these individuals have established communities and found creative outlets on the app, and a ban would severely disrupt their lives and careers. Although they could potentially switch to other platforms such as Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts, the unexpected upheaval would undoubtedly cause significant turmoil.

How could a TikTok ban affect average American users? Will they find other ways to access the app or migrate to other options? Chinese users are used to getting around restrictions, but Americans typically don’t face such barriers. Debates around Chinese censorship has shown how Chinese users get around banned apps, such as Instagram, on their phones. However, how American users will react to a TikTok ban is uncertain. Some may find ways to get around it, but many may struggle to adapt to losing a platform they’ve grown used to.

The ban also highlights a double standard in surveillance practices, where foreign tech companies are closely monitored while US tech giants operate with little scrutiny. This raises broader questions about global digital surveillance and the need for international agreements to protect privacy rights.

Ultimately, the ban on TikTok is not simply about the app itself. It’s raining bigger questions about finding a balance between security, freedom of expression, and the impact on millions of Americans who make a living through it. It underscores the complexities of regulating big tech, whether American or non-American based, and emphasizes the need for careful consideration of the consequences of any actions taken.


Around the same time Biden signed the bill to ban TikTok, the platform became available again in Russia. Russian users were unable to post new videos since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yesterday (15h of May), France banned TikTok in the overseas territory of New Caledonia in an effort to address escalating riots on the island. French Prime Minister Macron has publicly discussed the possibility of shutting down social media platforms like TikTok to control public unrest in Paris and other French cities in 2023 (see Goujard, 2024). Now, this situation is different from the proposed US ban, but it is important to pay close attentions to these developments. 

This piece could continue to further explore the political implications of banning a social media platform, or link these developments to previous calls for the US government by tech CEOs like Zuckerberg to establish regulations for platforms (and the reasons behind it). However, I will hold onto these ideas for another blog post. As a platform governance researcher, I am both equally intrigued and concerned about these developments. They appear to signal new forms of reassessing platform power.

Bremen, 05/16/2024

References & further reading

Ahene, N. A. (2024). Bracing For Post-TikTok Social: 20 Industry Voices Discuss Creators’ And Users’ Next Destinations. Netinfluencer.Com.

Are, C., & Briggs, P. (2023). The Emotional and Financial Impact of De-Platforming on Creators at the Margins. Social Media + Society, 9(1), 205630512311551.

Bishop, S. (2019). Managing visibility on YouTube through algorithmic gossip. New Media & Society, 21(11–12), 2589–2606.

Brodkin, J. (2024). TikTok owner has strong First Amendment case against US ban, professors say | Ars Technica. Arstechnica.

Burgess, J., & Green, J. (2018). Youtube: Online video and participatory culture (Second edition). Polity Press.

Chew, S. (2023). CEO Shou Chew shares special message on behalf of the entire TikTok team to thank our community of 150 million Americans ahead of his congressional hearing later this week. TikTok.

Chew, S. (2024). TikTok—Response to TikTok ban bill. TikTok.

Elliott, V., & Kelly, M. (2024). Can the First Amendment Save TikTok? | WIRED. Wired.

Frankel, A. (2024). If TikTok is banned, brace for epic First Amendment fight | Reuters. Reuters.

Glatt, Z. (2024). INFLUENCER INDUSTRIES & CREATOR CULTURE Collective Reading List SHARED DOC – February 2024.

Goujard, C. (2024, May 15). French government bans TikTok in overseas territory amid violent protests. POLITICO.

Hale, E. (2023). US says China can spy with TikTok. It spies on world with Google | Social Media | Al Jazeera. Aljazeera.

Hoeppner, S. (n.d.). Why the US and EU are going after TikTok – DW – 04/25/2024. DW. Retrieved May 10, 2024, from

Jaffer, J. (2024). Opinion | There’s a Problem With Banning TikTok. It’s Called the First Amendment. – The New York Times. The New York Times.

Klonick, K., & Williams, M. (2024, May 14). The Anti-TikTok Law [Substack newsletter]. The Klonickles.

Maddox, J. (2023, March 19). What in the world is going on with TikTok? [Substack newsletter]. The Internet User Experience.

Mendez II, M. (2024). What TikTok Creators Stand to Lose If App Is Banned | TIME. TIME.

Nover, S. (2024, March 15). The Grim Reality of Banning TikTok. TIME.

Spangler, T. (2023, December 1). TikTok Wins Court Ruling Halting Montana’s Statewide Ban, as Judge Says Law ‘Likely Violates the First Amendment.’ Variety.

The Recount [@therecount]. (2024, April 20). 360-58: House easily passes bill that would require ByteDance to sell TikTok in nine months—An extension over the six provided in a prior bill—And allows for the seizure of Russian assets. “No” votes: 33 Democrats 25 Republicans “Yes” votes: 174 Democrats 186 Republicans [Tweet]. Twitter.

The Institute for Rebooting Social Media. (2024). TikTok Bill Q&A: Experts Forecast Legal & Creative Impact. The Institute for Rebooting Social Media.

TikTok. (2023, January 25). About Project Texas. TikTok.

TikTok. (2023, October 20). Digital Services Act Transparency Reporting.

Thanks to Christian Katzenbach and the whole PGMT team for feedback on earlier versions & CJ Reynolds for sharing their First Amendment knowledge with me.