Why are governments cracking down on TikTok?

Countries have increased scrutiny over the use of TikTok, citing national security concerns.

TikTok app logo
TikTok has more than one billion active users across 150 countries [File: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

The Dutch government has become the latest one to order its officials to remove the Chinese-owned TikTok app from officials’ phones.

The Netherlands’ interior ministry said on Tuesday it discouraged, on phones distributed by the government, the use of all apps from “countries with an aggressive cyber-programme targeted at the Netherlands or Dutch interests”.

Here is what you need to know about TikTok and why countries are limiting its use:

What is TikTok and how popular is the app?

TikTok is a social media app dedicated to short-form videos, with more than one billion active users across 150 countries.

In the United States alone, more than 150 million people use the app, according to its CEO.

In comparison, Facebook has nearly three billion active users, while Instagram has more than 1.2 billion.

Why are countries raising issues about TikTok?

Concerns regarding alleged security risks posed by TikTok have most prominently been raised by US lawmakers and national security officials who say that user data gathered by the app could be accessed by the Chinese government.

Calls to ban TikTok from government devices gained momentum after FBI Director Christopher Wray said in November it poses national security risks.

In March, Wray told a Senate Intelligence Committee the Chinese government could use TikTok to control software on millions of devices and drive narratives to divide Americans over Taiwan or other issues.

The app first came in the crosshairs in 2020 during the Donald Trump administration, which tried to ban the short-form video app from app stores in the US and cut it off from vital technical services.

Actor Marie Zaccagnino (L) and musican Sean Sheridan
Actor Marie Zaccagnino (L) and musician Sean Sheridan dance and record themselves with a mobile phone for a TikTok video in front of the Brooklyn Bridge [File: Angela Weiss/AFP]

Which countries are restricting TikTok?

In February, the White House gave federal agencies one month to remove the app from all government-owned devices.

Earlier this month, the Joe Biden administration backed a bipartisan bill that would give Washington the power to ban TikTok in the US.

Several states, including Wisconsin and North Carolina, have banned the use of TikTok on devices provided by the government.

In February, Canada also banned the use of the app on government-issued devices. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he hoped Canadians from businesses to private individuals will “reflect on the security of their own data and perhaps make choices”.

Denmark, Belgium, India, Taiwan and several European Union institutions like the European Parliament have also taken similar steps.

Jordan banned the app in December 2022 citing TikTok’s failure to remove posts “inciting violence and chaos” following protests in the country.

In 2019, India and Pakistan banned it for “morality issues”, with both bans being rescinded after a while. India banned the app again in June 2020 as tensions between China and India heightened.

What does TikTok say?

TikTok’s chief executive Shou Zi Chew is due to testify in front of the US Congress on Thursday. In a written statement posted by the US Congress before his testimony, he said the company has never, and would never, share US user data with the Chinese government.

He said TikTok’s parent company ByteDance is not owned or controlled by any government or state entity. According to him, 60 percent of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors, including Blackrock, General Atlantic, and Sequoia, about 20 percent by the company’s founders, and about 20 percent owned by its employees “including thousands of Americans”.

Earlier this month, TikTok expressed disappointment with the White House’s decision to back the Senate bill seeking to ban the app, saying it would be effectively banning “the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide”.

How has China reacted?

Beijing has accused Washington of spreading disinformation and suppressing TikTok.

Earlier this month, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the US has yet to present evidence that TikTok threatens its national security and was using the excuse of data security to abuse its power to suppress foreign companies.

“Data security issues should not be used as a tool for some countries to overstretch the concept of national security, abuse state power, and unjustifiably suppress other countries’ enterprises,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies