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A TikTok ban would mean losing more than viral dance videos

This article was first featured in Yahoo Finance Tech, a weekly newsletter highlighting our original content on the industry. Subscribe and get it sent directly to your inbox every Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Banning TikTok could hurt free speech, creators, and politicians

TikTok CEO Shou Chew will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday, for what is expected to be an explosive hearing on the future of the social media platform.

The showdown is likely to be just a preview of what could be a protracted battle between members of Congress and the Biden administration and TikTok over whether the wildly popular social network will continue to operate in the U.S. or be banned.

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But cutting off access to TikTok for its 150 million monthly American users is sure to have ramifications beyond no longer being able to mindlessly scroll through videos for hours on end. Free speech, the livelihood of creators who’ve made their bones on the platform, advertisers, and even political fortunes could take a hit if the app is kicked out of the U.S.

“My perspective on this is, ‘Hey guys, find a solution here,’ ” Paul Barrett, deputy director of NYU’s Center for Business and Human Rights, told Yahoo Finance. “Why back into the most blunt, destructive approach of crushing something. Don't do that. Figure out a way to preserve it and move on.”

First Amendment fears abound

TikTok might be known for cringe-worthy dance trends, ridiculous viral “challenges,” and the obligatory cat video, but according to experts that even those videos are a form of expression for Americans.

“There is a certain amount of valuable expression taking place there, and it would be a shame to lose that venue,” Barrett said. “Expression is a good thing. Lots of free speech, even very imperfect free speech, even silly 10-second dance free speech, has some value.”

Free speech advocates like those at The Knight Institute at Columbia University say that banning the app would violate the First Amendment and mirror actions by authoritarian regimes like China’s Communist Party.

“The Supreme Court has recognized that Americans have the right to access social media platforms of their choice, and also to receive information from abroad,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute, told Yahoo Finance via email.

Apr 23, 2022; Portland, Oregon, USA; TikTok signage before the game between the Portland Timbers and the Real Salt Lake at Providence Park. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
A TikTok could mean trouble for free speech, creators, advertisers, and politicians. (Image: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY USPW / reuters)

“To justify a ban on a social media platform, the government would have to demonstrate that the ban is necessary, and that concerns about privacy and security couldn’t be addressed in narrower ways.”

While Jaffer said the Knight First Amendment Institute shares some of the government’s concerns about TikTok, kicking the app out of the U.S. could set a dangerous precedent.

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken a similar stance against a ban on TikTok, saying proposed bills in both the Senate and House seeking to ban the app would violate Americans’ right to free expression. Without evidence of imminent harm, the group says, banning TikTok would cut off Americans’ access to a communications platform used for everything from sharing information to art.

Dangers for creators, advertisers, and politicians

TikTok, like Instagram and YouTube (GOOG, GOOGL), has become synonymous with the influencer community. The app is home to some of the biggest names in social media and has helped launch the careers of creators ranging from comedians to singers and everyone in between.

And a ban on the TikTok could throw the livelihoods of those who rely on the app into disarray. Advertisers hoping to reach tweens and teens, meanwhile, will be forced to use other outlets to hit their target audiences.

Either way, creators and advertisers who don’t prepare for a ban on TikTok could find themselves out of luck.

“Just like brands should diversify their media spend among different partners, so should creators,” Forrester principal analyst Kelsey Chickering told Yahoo Finance via email. “Those who’ve built followings on multiple channels in addition to TikTok (i.e. YouTube, Instagram) are less exposed and well positioned to pivot quickly.”

As for advertisers, they’ll simply have to follow their audience to the next big thing, whether that’s returning to the likes of Instagram, Snap (SNAP), and Facebook (META), or a completely new social media platform.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 14: TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew is interviewed at offices the company uses on Tuesday February 14, 2023 in Washington, DC.(Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew will appear before the House Commerce Committee on March 23. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images) (The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Banning one of Gen. Z’s favorite social media platforms will not only impact influences and advertisers, but also potentially politicians. After all, young voters aren’t likely to side with the lawmakers that kill their go-to app.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told Bloomberg as much during a recent interview, saying, “The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever.”

And with the 2024 election cycle kicking into gear, some politicians might not be able to risk the damage.

Is there a danger?

It’s hard to say whether TikTok is a true threat to American national security. The app app was originally created by ByDance as the international version of its China-based Douyin app. But after purchasing Musical.ly 2017 for $1 billion, ByteDance merged TikTok with Musical.ly to form the app we know today.

Lawmakers, though, see TikTok as a means for China to collect data and spy on Americans, while spreading pro-Communist Party propaganda.

In 2020, however, the CIA said it hadn’t found any evidence the app was being used to spy on Americans, The New York Times reported. There have been reports that TikTok has censored content that angered the Chinese government, though the company says that was due to outdated policies and it no longer follows such rules.

But in Dec. 2022, Forbes reported that TikTok personnel spied on a handful of American journalists and their associates in an attempt to ferret out the source of internal leaks at the company. TikTok said it fired the employees. The Department of Justice is now reportedly investigating the incident.

TikTok, meanwhile, says it has moved American user data to Oracle’s servers and is deleting backup user data on its own servers to give lawmakers peace of mind that app data can’t be shipped to China.

None of that, however, seems to be enough to appease members of Congress. Whether that means the app will actually face its end, though, is an open question.

By Daniel Howley, tech editor at Yahoo Finance. Follow him @DanielHowley

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