The US can’t “ban” TikTok but could convince users to drop it

As reported by CNN Business:

The United States is “looking at” banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday. Pompeo suggested the possible move during an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, adding that “we’re taking this very seriously.”

OK, but how can the US “ban” an application – a piece of software? Is it doable at all? Technically, probably not. Legally, it would probably require new federal legislation, which would be vulnerable to multiple constitutional challenges. According to Mike Masnick at Techdirt,

there are real legal questions about whether or not the US even could ban TikTok in the US. Under what law would they do so?…

So it seems incredibly likely that any effort to bar TikTok would raise a whole bunch of legal concerns — starting with a basic 1st Amendment concern. The US government can’t just say “you can’t use that social media app.” That may be how things work in China or India, but not in the US.

In theory, Congress might he able to outlaw the use of certain apps by users – all internet use probably qualifies as interstate commerce, which Congress has the power to regulate. However, such a ban would be strikingly un-American. A more sensible approach would be to limit the public’s access to the app. A series of developments that would convince Google and Apple that they would be better off without TikTok being available at their app stores.

The national security risk, if real, is TikTok’s mass harvesting of user data. The risk to individual US users is probably negligible: they owe no taxes to the Chinese government. Some users would still keep using the app and would soon learn to sideload the app and/or the necessary updates. (Even in China, judging by the reports I’ve read, Facebook and Twitter are available through a number of commercial VPN services.) While accepting this reality, the American government could still seek to limit and/or roll back TikTok’s penetration of the US market.

To sell the “ban” to the American public, Washington would have to demonstrate how China is gathering intelligence from the US via the app and how it harms America as a whole. If successful, this PR effort could make TikTok users feel like accessories to a totalitarian foreign power. It’s doable, but unlikely under this administration.

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