If the US government bans Tiktok, it would be a disaster for the provider of the video app. And it would be the second. A few weeks ago, the huge Indian market with hundreds of millions of Tiktok users disappeared. After skirmishes on the border to the even larger neighboring state, the country blocked Tiktok and 58 other apps from China. With the USA, access to the second market is now in question, in which the app is very successful.
The Trump administration’s announcement to the Tiktok mother Bytedance is clear: sell Tiktok to a US company – preferably Microsoft – or we will shut you down. But how could the U.S. government ban Tiktok?
Trump could declare a “national emergency” because of Tiktok under a law called the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and ban the app. To this end, he could also rely on Presidential Decree 13873. He had issued it in May 2019, in particular against the Chinese hardware companies Huawei and ZTE. The move would prohibit US companies from offering Tiktok. This would be particularly relevant for the app stores from Google and Apple, the only relevant points of contact for downloading apps for the mobile operating systems iOS and Android. The attempt by Chinese cell phone manufacturers to set up their own app store is still in its infancy.
If Tiktok disappears from the two large app stores, the program can still be used in the USA. Then, however, the company can no longer deploy updates via these platforms. The app would become outdated and unsafe because possible security gaps in the program code could no longer be plugged.
Apple usually only checks an app when it is first published or updated, to determine whether it is legal under the laws of the respective country. The company did not want to comment on the specific Tiktok case. A Google spokesman said on request that the Tiktok case had “no specific information”. Basically, the laws of every country have to be implemented.
Making Tiktok completely unusable in the United States is complicated. If the US government tried to force Google and Apple to destroy already downloaded versions on the cell phones themselves, the corporations would fight back massively. Such direct interference with customers’ cell phones would destroy the relationship of trust between them and the providers of their operating systems.
Theoretically, Tiktoks could be blocked without the help of Google and Apple, via the Internet provider. In contrast to China or Iran, the United States does not have a central body through which the national Internet can be controlled. The US government would therefore have to instruct all Internet providers such as T-Mobile individually to block data traffic between the app and Tiktok’s servers. Ironically, this drastic move would be like Internet censorship for which the West has always criticized China and its “Great Firewall”, the control system over the Chinese Internet. Tiktok users have already announced that they will use a virtual private network in the event of such a blockage – software that can bypass the blockage. With it, the mobile phone accesses Tiktok across a country in which the app works.
However, the question arises whether Tiktok with such restricted access to India and the USA – from where many influencers come who make the app successful worldwide – is still particularly interesting for young people in the rest of the world. US influencers would probably move to another platform.
A simpler variant would be to ban the app only from US officials. Anything that can be installed on service cell phones is controlled centrally anyway. Soldiers from the USA and Australia have been banned from the app since the beginning of the year. A ban for civil servants would hardly have the brutal effect on byte dance and thus on China that Trump wants.
No matter which way the United States chooses, Tiktok should defend itself against a ban in court. And could rely on a legal peculiarity of the USA: the broad interpretation of freedom of expression. Program code of software has been protected by this freedom since a 1995 court decision. At that time it was about a mathematician who wanted to publish an encryption algorithm. The government wanted to have it presented, for fear that technology could make life difficult for intelligence agencies. However, one judge ruled: “The court cannot find a significant difference between sophisticated computer language and German or French.” Tiktok could also argue that way. Eva Galperin of the civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation expressed it in conversation with the US technology website Protocol like this: “Code is language. Tiktok is code.”