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What a TikTok ban would mean for users: experts weigh in

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The Biden administration has given Chinese company ByteDance an ultimatum: sell your popular video-sharing app, TikTok, or be banned nationwide.

TikTok has not yet indicated it will sell, but has tried to convince US officials that they can address security vulnerabilities and comply with the level of scrutiny proposed. The CEO of TikTok has argued that a ban would not allay safety concerns.

But what would a ban mean for consumers? Is there a precedent for such a ban?

NBC News spoke to four people who studied cybersecurity, national security and technology policy, who offered some ideas about how a TikTok ban might work.

How would a ban work?

It is not clear how the US would impose a ban. The best chance for the White House to do that would likely come from a bill introduced last week by a bipartisan group of senators that has strong White House support.

While the senators behind the bill introduced it as a way to potentially ban TikTok, it’s not clear exactly how that would happen. It would give the Secretary of Commerce broader authority to ban foreign technology in cases where the US believed it posed a threat to national security. However, how that authority would be exercised is still up for debate. A spokesperson for the Commerce Department declined to discuss details about how the agency is considering that power.

The simplest mechanism for the government to enforce a ban would be to ban the app stores from making TikTok available for download, said Darrell M. West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation. The app may lose functionality over time.

“If there was a ban, there would certainly be no more updates and software improvements, and over time it would become more difficult to use those apps,” said West.

Using TikTok may also be punishable by criminal penalties, says Ahmed Ghappour, a professor of law at Boston University. This has been done in the past with other banned software flagged as a threat to national security. Though he said such software is not “as mainstream as TikTok.”

Can I still use TikTok?

Possible. An app store ban would leave the app intact on phones that already had it downloaded. Theoretically, those apps would still be operational. The government can’t force people to remove the app, West said.

There’s uncertainty about what the app would look like for those who’ve been grandfathered in — if existing users could log in and still have access to video sharing and browsing.

But the US could theoretically go further by forcing ISPs to block the app.

India is the largest country to completely ban TikTok, having blocked dozens of mostly Chinese apps in 2020. Shortly after the ban, India’s Ministry of Telecommunications ordered internet and wireless service providers to block the apps including TikTok.

Soon after, some TikTok users in India said the app lost functionality.

Has the US ever banned an app?

The US has never issued a blanket ban on an app. TikTok has been the subject of a number of smaller restrictions.

Many public universities have restricted access to the social media app from school-owned devices and campus Wi-Fi networks, and states have banned government-issued devices from downloading the app.

The US did force the sale of an app. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) regularly reviews foreign companies to determine whether their business and transactions pose a threat to national security.

In 2019, CFIUS forced a Chinese company to divest ownership of the dating app Grindr.

Can I use a VPN to access TikTok?

If the US takes steps to completely block the app, there is a possibility that using a VPN (virtual private network) could provide access to the app.

Virtual private networks are services that allow users to reroute their Internet connection through other networks. They are often used to circumvent certain forms of internet censorship.

“There are virtual networks that allow people to access Western applications,” said West. Americans could use the same to access TikTok. A ban would be difficult to enforce, he added, because there are always loopholes.

Still, the government could focus on VPN access to make the ban effective. Officials could “ban VPN use or force VPN companies to have a blacklist of sites they will not allow traffic to,” Ghappour said.

Other experts said that while there may be workarounds to the ban, they may not be sustainable due to the popularity of the app.

“There really would be no way around the ban. The market is too big,” says Elly Rostoum, a political scientist and lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We’re talking about a third of the US population using TikTok.”

Does a ban mean my data is safe?

It wouldn’t.

“The ban does not solve TikTok’s main problem, which is the transfer of data,” Rostoum said. “There will be another company owned by a Chinese company that can transfer the data.”

Other experts agreed.

“TikTok is just the tip of the iceberg,” said James Lewis, a technology expert at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “Many products have Chinese software.”

In addition to data privacy concerns at Chinese-owned companies, the US has no overarching federal data privacy laws and data brokers freely buy and sell data from users with very little oversight. And TikTok’s access to user information isn’t unique — most smartphone apps collect data from users’ phones.

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