How Did TikTok Bans Go Viral In State Legislatures?

Americans love TikTok. Politicians, not so much.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump issued an executive order attempting to ban the popular video app from American app stores. The order ran into a number of legal challenges and was ultimately dropped after President Biden took office, but that wasn’t the end of the story. Now, both in Congress and across over 30 states, lawmakers across the political spectrum are attempting to — or have already — revive the Trump-esque bans, citing concerns that the app’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, could access U.S. user data.

The push to ban TikTok, even in a limited way, has been growing steam since Trump’s directive failed. Last year, a handful of states led by Republican governors — like South Dakota — banned the app on government-issued or government-owned devices through executive orders. That initial push led more than a dozen other GOP governors to follow suit.

Now, state lawmakers are attempting to put these directives into state law. The Georgia Senate, for instance, recently advanced a bill banning employees from downloading or using TikTok (among other apps) on state devices. The bill, if passed as is, would also prohibit state employees from using state equipment to visit any social media platforms located in countries that are deemed to be “foreign adversaries.” The Kentucky Senate also unanimously approved a similar measure recently. But notably, the latest efforts aren’t just being led by Republicans. In Connecticut, some prominent Democrats have endorsed proposals that would ban employees from downloading or using TikTok on state-issued or state-owned devices. 

So, why are these movements gaining traction now when Trump’s attempts were unsuccessful just three years ago? And how did this become a bipartisan issue

One big difference is that states banning TikTok are taking a more targeted approach than Trump by pinpointing state-owned or state-operated devices. (Trump’s proposal would have effectively banned TikTok in the U.S. entirely.) And the political stars may be aligning to make the bans an appealing issue for both parties, according to Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. Republicans have long harbored animus toward both China and social media companies. Democrats, too, Kousser said, likely see this as a winning issue given the escalating tension between China and the U.S. over tech competition and economic leadership. And lawmakers at the federal level are trying to push the bans even further, with some Republicans even calling for TikTok’s outright ban. 

“This was a chance for Republican governors to build up their brand name and burnish their credentials of being tough on China,” Kousser said. “And I think that Democrats didn’t want to be left behind. Standing with tech companies is one thing when they’re based out of California, but another when they’re based out of Beijing.”

Concern about TikTok’s potential to share sensitive user information — such as location, personal habits and interests — has been rising along with the app’s popularity. Between October 2018, the month it became the most downloaded app in the U.S., and August 2020, TikTok’s monthly active users in the U.S. increased almost tenfold. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly two-thirds of U.S. teenagers ages 13 to 17 (67 percent) used the app in 2022 — making it second in popularity only to YouTube (95 percent). More recently, in November, FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concern that the Chinese had the ability to control the app’s recommended algorithm. That power, he said, “could be used for influence operations … or to control software on millions of devices.”

But the bans that are being considered in state legislatures mostly wouldn’t affect teenagers. Instead, they’d mostly impact public-sector employees. According to a CNN review of legislation in January, 32 states have already taken some kind of action to ban TikTok on state-owned devices (though in four of those states, TikTok is only banned by some agencies). Other bills and directives, like the one issued in Maryland, for instance, target more than just TikTok and also forbid other Chinese- and Russian-owned products, like WeChat, Alipay and Kaspersky.

Some of the bans issued via — or in response to — state-level executive orders extend to public universities. In some cases, that means that no students, faculty members, staff or visitors are able to access the app on school devices or when connected to a campus Wi-Fi network. 

But many of the restrictions that are already in place have had a pretty small impact. According to The Washington Post, Pennsylvania’s treasury department passed a ban that affected 500 laptops and desktops and 40 cell phones. At the time the ban was enacted, none of the devices had TikTok installed on them. As such, it’s likely that most of the boon in state-level bans we’re seeing today is little more than a way for lawmakers to score easy political points. In fact, late last year Congress picked up the baton and included a ban on TikTok use on federal government devices as part of its spending bill, which Biden signed. “It’s the age-old lesson of American federalism: Political success in one state breeds policy invitation in others,” Kousser said. “Politically, these policies are largely seen as win-win.” 

The real test for the TikTok bans could come later, if federal lawmakers are ever able to get a broader ban off the ground. Earlier this month, Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Angus King of Maine reintroduced bipartisan legislation that would ban TikTok from operating in the U.S. unless the app severs ties with its current owner. More recently, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made headlines after he endorsed the consideration of a national ban, despite being previously critical of such a move. That would have to happen at the federal level, since a law of that nature passed by a single state likely “wouldn’t pass constitutional muster,” Anupam Chander, a professor of law and technology at Georgetown University, told me.

But Chander thinks that the current state-level momentum on TikTok bans could make federal action more likely in the future, even if the impact is limited for now. Bipartisan concerns about U.S.-China relations could move things forward even faster. “There is a cold war that is clearly brewing,” Chander said. “TikTok is a casualty of that cold war.”

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