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The White House has threatened to ban TikTok if the app's Chinese owners refuse to sell their stakes, citing concerns about the safety of Americans' data.OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images

The Biden administration has threatened to ban TikTok in the United States if the social-media app’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, declines to divest its stake. White House officials have grown increasingly concerned about the safety of Americans’ data.

This isn’t the first time a potential ban on TikTok has been threatened. In 2020, then-president Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok but was blocked by U.S. courts. A nationwide ban would face significant legal and societal hurdles, since TikTok is popular with more than 100 million Americans and an app has never been banned in the country.

Here’s what we know so far.

Why does the U.S. want to ban TikTok?

Critics of TikTok accuse the app of “excessive data harvesting” and collecting details about users such as location. A 2022 report on cybersecurity published by Australia’s Internet 2.0 is often cited as evidence for these claims. Some U.S. officials are concerned that user data could be shared with the Chinese government, and that China could, in turn, use TikTok to influence and control Americans and their mobile devices.

Spokespeople for TikTok have denied any interference by the Chinese government.

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What has the U.S. done about TikTok so far?

Last month, the White House gave government agencies 30 days to ensure they do not have TikTok on federal devices and systems. More than 30 U.S. states have also banned employees from using TikTok on government-owned devices. Similar measures have been taken by governments in Canada, the EU and New Zealand.

Last week, the White House supported a bipartisan bill in Congress that would give the federal government power to regulate and even ban tech produced by China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela. Biden’s administration called the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act, or RESTRICT Act, “a systematic framework for addressing technology-based threats to the security and safety of Americans.” While the bill doesn’t cite TikTok by name, senators who introduced it repeatedly referenced threats posed by the app.

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TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will appear before U.S. Congress on March 23 to answer questions about the app’s security measures.ORE HUIYING/The New York Times

How is TikTok responding?

In addition to denying any involvement by the Chinese government, TikTok chief executive officer Shou Zi Chew has stated that selling the app would not address U.S. security concerns. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Chew said that such a move would not provide any more protection than the company’s current plan: ensuring U.S. user data is accessible only by Oracle Cloud and TikTok’s American data security team.

Chew will appear before Congress on March 23 to answer questions about the app’s security measures, including the platform’s effects on children and TikTok’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

'Your platform should be banned': U.S. lawmakers grill TikTok CEO

How can a country ban an app?

In June, 2020, India banned TikTok and WeChat in response to a border clash between India and China in a disputed Himalayan region. The government ordered Google and Apple to remove the apps from their Android and iOS stores, and forced internet service providers to block access. The app is also blocked in Afghanistan.

Countries can apply geo-blocking to websites that restrict access based on tracking your location and identifying your internet protocol (IP) address. In turn, companies can also apply geo-blocking within certain regions. There are different ways to bypass geo-blocking, including using a virtual private network (VPN) or proxy server.

How does a potential ban affect TikTok creators?

Globally, TikTok has in excess of a billion active users, with more than 100 million based in the United States alone. It was the second most popular app downloaded in the U.S. in 2022.

Beginning in 2021, TikTok launched the Creator Fund for users with at least 10,000 followers and 100,000 video views during a 30-day period. Those who are part of the Creator Fund can earn money – usually between a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars a month – based on video views and engagement.

Unsurprisingly, U.S.-based TikTok creators have spoken out against the potential ban, with some accusing the White House of attacking their careers.

Some TikTokers believe that the ban isn’t related to national security, but rather the result of political meddling by Meta because of increased competition. Meta owns Facebook and Instagram. There’s no evidence that Meta is behind the recent bill, but Mark Zuckerberg did hire a GOP firm last year to malign TikTok and promote messaging that the app was harmful to American children.

Some TikTok creators have stated that they will develop their presence on other video-based platforms, such as YouTube and Instagram Reels, to offset any loss of revenue from TikTok.

Is Canada planning to ban TikTok?

Canada has joined other countries in banning TikTok from all government-issued devices. Critics of the app are urging Canadian companies to consider blocking the app on work phones since it collects everything from e-mail addresses and phone numbers to the content uploaded and information on users’ keystroke patterns, battery levels, audio settings and locations. Meanwhile, a coalition of Canadian privacy protection authorities announced it is investigating TikTok, after class-action lawsuits over the app’s privacy practices. That investigation will determine whether TikTok’s practices are in compliance with Canada’s privacy laws.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that at this time, a wider ban of the app isn’t being implemented because Canadians’ freedom of expression and how they want to engage online should be respected.

“This may be a first step, it may be the only step we need to take, but every step of the way we’re going to be making sure we’re keeping Canadians safe,” he told reporters.

However, he did say the ban would likely have an impact beyond the government.

“I suspect that as government takes the significant step of telling all federal employees that they can no longer use TikTok on their work phones, many Canadians – from businesses to private individuals – will reflect on the security of their own data and perhaps make choices in consequence.”

With files from Samantha Edwards

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