Blocking the Tok

5 US states are banning TikTok from government phones

Texas, Maryland, South Carolina and South Dakota joined Nebraska in banning the popular app
5 US states are banning TikTok from government phones
Photo: Sean Gallup (Getty Images)
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Two years after Donald Trump’s unsuccessful attempt to ban TikTok in the US, state governments are trying to clamp down on the Chinese-born app.

On Wednesday, Dec. 7, Texas banned TikTok from government devices, becoming the fifth state to do so—and the fourth in the past week. Nebraska outlawed TikTok from government devices in August 2020, around the same time the Trump administration was attempting to ban the app altogether in the US. This week brought four new entrants: Maryland, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas, each of which cited TikTok’s Chinese ownership as a national security risk.

It’s a legally difficult proposition to limit citizens’ access to TikTok, but the US government certainly has the power to ban the app on government-issued phones and computers.

The new state bans exemplify a growing consternation between US officials and TikTok at a time when the app has become the cultural capital of the internet.

TikTok’s murky relationship with China

Since the popularization of social media in the mid-2000s, many of the most popular platforms in the US—Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, to name a few—all have been owned by US companies. TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, is a notable exception.

Federal and state officials have directed a constant stream of questions at TikTok, which has repeatedly maintained that the Chinese government has no control over its editorial policies and has no access to Americans’ user data, though recent reporting from BuzzFeed has called that into question.

“TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where, and how they conduct Internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government,” Texas governor Greg Abbott wrote in a letter this week to state agency heads.

In a statement to Quartz, TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown wrote that government concerns are “largely fueled by misinformation,” adding that the company is “disappointed that the many state agencies, offices, and universities that have been using TikTok to build communities and connect with constituents will no longer have access to our platform.”

How to ban TikTok

The five states that banned TikTok aren’t the only government entities to take that action. Federal agencies such as the departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security have each banned TikTok from its employee-issued devices.

Former president Donald Trump tried to take more drastic action in August 2020, issuing an executive order banning “transactions” with TikTok by US citizens and companies, an order that would have effectively outlawed the app. TikTok sued and a Trump-appointed judge halted the order over a carveout for communications technologies in the emergency economic powers law Trump invoked. (While there was also a first amendment challenge, the judge did not weigh in on its merits.)

But Trump did initiate a more substantive probe into TikTok that continues to this day under the purview of the Biden administration. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (Cfius), an interagency body led by treasury secretary Janet Yellen, has been conducting a national-security review of the app.

Cfius has the power to block corporate takeovers, reverse deals, or force foreign owners to divest from assets if they pose a threat to US national security. The committee typically blocks deals that threaten critical infrastructure, but intervened on a consumer-facing app in 2020 when it forced Beijing Kunlun Tech, a Chinese company, to sell off the gay dating app Grindr over concerns about sensitive user data.