The TikTok Ban Debate: Why It’s the Wrong Move for the United States and Canada

In recent months, the U.S. Congress has been debating the possibility of banning TikTok operations in the United States.

TikTok is a hugely popular global social media platform owned by the Chinese tech company ByteDance, founded by Zhang Yiming in 2012. In China, TikTok operates under the name Douyin, catering primarily to the Chinese market with its own set of regulations and content guidelines mandated by Chinese authorities.

ByteDance operates a separate version of TikTok for the international market, known simply as TikTok. This version adheres to different regulations and content standards depending on the region it serves.

TikTok’s business operations in China differ significantly from those outside of China. In China, Douyin complies with regulatory requirements mandated by the Chinese government, including content filtering related to certain political topics and social issues. Additionally, Douyin integrates with other Chinese platforms and services that are not available outside of China, such as Tencent’s WeChat Pay for transactions.

Outside China, TikTok operates globally, focusing on user-generated content, entertainment, and viral trends. It adheres to local laws and regulations in each country, including data privacy laws, content moderation guidelines, and community standards. TikTok’s international version is designed to appeal to a global audience, fostering creativity, engagement, and interaction among users worldwide. It would be an understatement to say the platform is an enormous success.

ByteDance has over 150 million users in America. Many U.S. lawmakers regard TikTok with suspicion over whether its data can be accessed by the Chinese government and whether the app can be used to expand China’s influence. TikTok has vehemently denied these claims.

During hearings last month in the United States Senate regarding TikTok operations in America, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton’s questions to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew revealed a misunderstanding of the differences between TikTok’s operations in China and its international operations, particularly in Singapore. His questions demonstrated his ignorance of TikTok’s localization efforts and compliance with regional laws and regulations outside of China.

TikTok’s operations in Singapore, for instance, adhere to Singaporean laws and guidelines, not Chinese censorship or regulatory frameworks.

Cotton repeatedly asked Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean, about his residency, nationality, and relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. “Have you ever been a member of the Chinese Communist Party?” Cotton asked. Chew replied, “Senator, I’m Singaporean. Cotton then asked, “Have you ever been associated or affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party? “Chew, who lives in Singapore with his wife and children, who are American, responded, “No, Senator. Again, I’m Singaporean!” People of Chinese descent make up more than 75 percent of Singapore’s population.

Cotton’s inappropriate questions reflected a lack of awareness regarding TikTok’s global business model and the complexities of operating a social media platform across diverse regions with varying legal and cultural contexts. Tellingly, they also revealed ignorance and overt racism that was confounding to those watching the hearings.

Afterwards, the AAPI Victory Fund, a political action committee that supports Asian American candidates, sent out a tweet saying, “This line of questioning from Senator Tom Cotton is disgraceful, blatantly racist, and deeply dangerous.”

Click here to view the hearings and Cotton’s questions.

The U.S. Senate hearing on TikTok highlights the important need in all countries for informed and nuanced discussions about technology companies’ operations and regulatory compliance rather than making sweeping assumptions or oversimplifications based on geopolitical considerations.

The move to ban TikTok in America continues to spark widespread controversy and debate, with voices like U.S. presidential candidate Robert Kennedy Jr. strongly opposing the idea on the grounds of free speech. (Last year, the Canadian government studied the potential of banning TikTok but rejected the idea, recognizing the complexities and potential negative consequences of such a drastic measure.)

Kennedy Jr. is on the same page. He argues that banning TikTok would set a dangerous precedent in the U.S. by restricting the speech of millions of users who rely on the platform to share their thoughts, creativity, and opinions. He says the move would undermine the principles of free expression that are fundamental to democratic societies.

There are other compelling reasons to avoid the drastic step of a ban.

TikTok has emerged as a hub for creativity and innovation, especially among young people. Banning the platform would stifle this creativity and limit opportunities for individuals to highlight their talents and ideas to a global audience. TikTok has also become a significant player in the digital economy, supporting businesses, content creators, and advertisers. A ban would disrupt these economic activities, potentially leading to job losses and financial instability in related industries.

TikTok has transcended national borders, connecting people from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Banning the platform would sever these connections and hinder cross-cultural dialogue and understanding, especially at a time when global connectivity is more important than ever.

Besides these reasons, the TikTok ban debate reveals a deeper issue: the commercial interests that often drive such decisions.

In India, the ban on TikTok resulted in a significant shift in the digital market dynamics. It led to a mass migration of users to platforms like Instagram and Meta, resulting in increased engagement and ad revenue for these platforms. With TikTok banned, the competition in India was crushed, and Instagram consolidated its dominance in the digital space, raising concerns about fair competition and monopolistic practices in the country.

Regulatory capture and lobbying were at the heart of India’s decision to ban TikTok. Behind-the-scenes influences from META lobbyists helped to shape regulatory decisions, raising questions about transparency and fairness.

The Indian experience serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting how bans on platforms like TikTok can be manipulated to serve commercial interests under the guise of national security and data privacy concerns. While data privacy and security are crucial, policymakers must ensure that regulatory actions are driven by genuine concerns rather than economic favouritism.

As the United States moves towards copying the policy of India and banning TikTok, it is timely for Canada and other Western governments to consider what the broader implications of such a ban would mean for data privacy, preserving digital rights, fostering innovation, supporting economic stability, and promoting fair competition.

Security is always a paramount issue for any country and its citizens, but too often, “security’ becomes the reason to ban things to promote other agendas.

A key consideration for all governments is that policy should be based on informed and balanced approaches that address concerns without resorting to politics or extreme measures like banning popular social media platforms.