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TikTok has become one of the world’s most popular social media apps. The Chinese-owned, video-based platform has more than 1.5 billion users, including eight million in Canada and 170 million in the U.S., surpassing tech giants such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram in downloads between 2018 and 2022. But the app has also been a source of controversy for years as politicians raise questions about its ownership.

On March 13, House Republicans passed a bill that would force the app’s owner, ByteDance, to sell TikTok in roughly six months or face a ban in the U.S. In Canada, the federal government ordered a national security review of TikTok in September, 2023, though this was not disclosed publicly until last week.

TikTok has already been banned extensively on devices used by government officials around the world, including the U.S., Canada and Europe.

What concerns do government officials have around the app? And what are people opposed to the ban or sale saying? Here’s what you need to know.

Concerns about foreign ownership

The bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives – the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act – specifies that the governments of China, Iran, Russia and North Korea not own or operate an app or website in the U.S. There is significant concern around TikTok’s Chinese owner, particularly regarding laws in China that may force ByteDance to hand over user information to the government.

As a recent Globe and Mail editorial put it, “the problem is that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, and China’s laws force companies to co-operate with the government on issues of state security and intelligence-gathering. The smart move is to assume that these juicy foreign data are not safe from the prying eyes of Beijing’s security apparatus.”

The U.S. has laws regulating foreign ownership of communications channels and has stated that TikTok must divest itself of its Chinese ownership or face an outright ban in the U.S.

In Canada, the government can take measures such as making investors sell parts of the business or sell shares. It can also allow the company to continue operating as long as it agrees to certain conditions.

Concerns about manipulation of content on the platform

In the same vein, lawmakers are worried about China pushing particular ideas or content that serve Beijing’s political interests – in short, propaganda.

The platform sent a message to U.S. users the day after the bill passed the House, urging them to “stop a TikTok shutdown” with text that said, “Speak up now – before your government strips 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression.” There was a button at the bottom for people to call their representatives.

For some, this proved the point of the proposed ban.

“[It] provided members a preview of how the platform could be weaponized to inject disinformation into our system,” said Representative Mike Gallagher, the bill’s author.

Similarly in Canada, the national security review, which was based on an expansion of the business, had a policy statement that noted “hostile state-sponsored or influenced actors may seek to leverage foreign investments in the interactive digital media sector to propagate disinformation or manipulate information in a manner that is injurious to Canada’s national security.”

Last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the U.S. Congress that a Chinese government-linked military hacking group has for years cultivated access to IT systems in the communications, energy, transportation and water utility sectors to prepare to inflict widespread chaos and destruction. As Conor Healy, director of government research at IPVM, and Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a board director at the China Strategic Risks Institute, wrote in The Globe this week, “TikTok itself demonstrated its power to access millions of screens last week. In the scenario Mr. Wray depicted, China could use TikTok to sow further chaos.”

Concerns around bill’s overreach and future powers

Detractors are concerned about the powers of the U.S. bill. Though the language specifies the foreign actors of concern as China, Iran, Russia and North Korea, some observers worry the legislation could be used for other purposes.

“While acknowledging there are very real security concerns at play, not to mention the typical social-media harms that come with TikTok, we should ask ourselves: If governments get emboldened by this and decide they can single out specific companies for potential shutdown, what’s next? Where does it end? Who decides what the next app to threaten national security will be? And who even defines what threatening national security is?” wrote Dave Sommer, vice-president for strategic communications with Enterprise Canada, in The Globe.

Concerns around free speech

As indicated by TikTok’s message to its users, there are claims that the U.S. is clamping down on free speech by banning the app. Last November in Montana, which was the first state to pass a ban it, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy overruled the law in a preliminary trial, saying that “without TikTok, User Plaintiffs are deprived of communicating by their preferred means of speech, and thus First Amendment scrutiny is appropriate.” The final trial and determination is expected this year.

Concerns around economic impact

Among the issues raised by users is the loss of potential income and employment they have gained via TikTok, as well as the reach for advertisers. Many thousands of people use TikTok for business and extol the virtues of being able to reach consumers they never could before.

In reference to the Canadian review, a TikTok spokesperson said the company is co-operating with the government and remains “committed to ensuring the safety and security of the platform for the millions of Canadian creators, artists and small businesses who rely on TikTok to earn a living, find community and create jobs.”

With reports from Reuters, The Associated Press and The Canadian Press

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