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Why Are Countries Banning TikTok?


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Jennifer Chance


On August 6, Trump issued an executive order to ban TikTok from the United States. This executive order gave ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, approximately one month to sell the app to a US company or it would be removed from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. Before the ban could be enacted, however, a judge filed an injunction in September that temporarily blocked the executive order. To date, there is still lingering uncertainty as to whether the ban will follow through.


Since its emergence, TikTok has reached 100 million users in the United States and has been downloaded over 2 billion times globally. This popularity has, in turn, raised questions of user privacy, censorship and national security.


As a result, countries such as Australia are leading investigations into the video-sharing platform while others are banning it. India banned TikTok in June and Pakistan banned the app in October (though short-lived). Although ByteDance has stated that TikTok’s data isn’t stored in China and is therefore not mandated to comply with China’s data collection laws, concerns remain.


United States’ Attempted Ban


The attempted ban on TikTok in the US has been officially justified on the basis of national security. China’s National Intelligence Law requires Chinese corporations to hand over all accumulated data should the government deem it necessary. The US government remains concerned about the protections afforded to user data and fears that this data could be used for intelligence gathering purposes by China.


In 2019, details surfaced of TikTok censoring videos that portrayed the Chinese government negatively, mirroring the way China itself regulates online content. This highlights concerns that TikTok is not as removed from its Chinese origins as it has claimed, and may still be vulnerable to pressure from the Chinese government. This further supports the argument for national security concerns.


US motivations, however, may be manifold. The US-China relationship has rapidly deteriorated over the past decade and the ongoing trade war between the two countries only continues to intensify. Public opinion on China has further soured over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that 66% of Americans have an unfavourable view of China. The attempted ban may represent the latest political move to appease the American public and project government strength.


Furthermore, Trump stated that the ban on TikTok may be reconsidered if the operations are sold to a US company, indicating a possible economic motive. This was reinforced with Trump’s declaration that the US Treasury should receive a cut out of the deal, something that is extremely unusual in such circumstances.


Pakistan’s Ban


In Pakistan, the government banned TikTok under public indecency concerns, similar to Indonesia and Bangladesh’s temporary bans of the app. The Pakistani Telecommunications Authority cited complaints from the population regarding ‘immoral or indecent content’ shared on the app. Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, claimed that the app promotes ‘obscenity and vulgarity’.


However, many have viewed the ban as an attempt to quash a platform for political content that criticises the government. Throughout the pandemic, with the country facing severe economic fallout, an increasing number of political videos have appeared on the app. Najam Sethi, a journalist based in Pakistan, tweeted that TikTok was banned because it made fun ‘of the Great Leader’.


Pakistan since rescinded the ban on October 19, after ByteDance agreed to regulate content based on local laws. How far this agreement extends and whether the content moderation will affect the spread of political content remains unknown.


India’s Ban


India’s ban is explicitly political amid rising tensions with China over their shared borders. On June 16, a violent clash occurred between Chinese and Indian forces near the Himalayan border that took the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. In retaliation, India banned almost 60 Chinese apps, TikTok and WeChat being among them. The Chinese Embassy in India has responded by saying that they will take ‘necessary measures’ to protect Chinese businesses in India.


Implications for the Future


While TikTok is not the first app to experience bans, the scale of its user base and the highly political nature of the issue renders the case unique. While Pakistan’s ban has been overturned, public criticism over the implicit attempt to restrict political discourses may linger. India’s move against TikTok retains a high risk of retaliation from China. The US ban raises concerns over its implications for future government regulation of the Internet.


Several leaders of US multinational corporations warned that a US ban on TikTok would set a dangerous precedent should other countries wish to ban US apps in the future. In addition, perceptions of the freedom of the Internet in democratic countries will undeniably change. While countries like Pakistan and India are already strong censors of online content, the US has the highest rating of internet content openness according to research conducted by New America. Regardless of motive, a US ban on TikTok will likely shift the definition of ‘free media’ for democracies.



Jennifer Chance is a freelance writer studying Economics and Politics & International Studies at the University of Melbourne. She has a passion for journalism within the context of human rights and international affairs.



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