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Why a growing number of states are cracking down on TikTok

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A growing number of states are cracking down on TikTok.

By Brian Fung, CNN

Two years after TikTok avoided a national ban in the United States, the popular short-form video app is now facing growing pushback at the state level.

In the past two weeks, at least seven states have said they will bar public employees from using the app on government devices, including Alabama, Maryland, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah and Texas. (Another state, Nebraska, banned TikTok from state devices in 2020.) Last week, the state of Indiana announced two lawsuits against TikTok accusing the Chinese-owned platform of misrepresenting its approach to age-appropriate content and data security.

On Tuesday, a group of 15 attorneys general wrote to Apple and Google calling on the app store owners to stop listing TikTok as being appropriate for teens, over claims about the prevalence of mature content on the app.

The mounting pressure on TikTok has come from states led by Republican governors who have highlighted fears that TikTok users’ personal information could wind up in the hands of the Chinese government, thanks to that country’s national security laws.

“South Dakota will have no part in the intelligence gathering operations of nations who hate us,” said Gov. Kristi Noem in announcing the new state policy.

The flurry of announcements has drawn sharp contrasts with activity at the federal level. Since 2020, when the Trump administration threatened a ban over national security concerns, TikTok and the US government have been negotiating a deal that may allow the short-form video app to keep serving US users.

There have been years of closed-door negotiations between TikTok and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an opaque multi-agency panel charged with reviewing foreign investment deals for national security risks. One US official has suggested that CFIUS ban TikTok from the United States outright.

Whatever outcome the negotiations produce is still expected to have big implications for TikTok and its users. But the federal government’s continued inaction on that front, as well as recent reports of delays in the negotiations, has left the door open for states to step in as the app has gained immense popularity among US users.

In taking these steps, the states are unlikely to disrupt how everyday users access the app. But these recent announcements could nonetheless add to political pressure for tougher action at the federal level, which could in turn be more disruptive to users.

“It feels like the states are stepping into the DC vacuum on TikTok,” said Paul Gallant, a policy analyst at the investment research firm Cowen Inc. “I don’t see those new restrictions disrupting TikTok that much, but it probably adds a bit of pressure for Washington to ‘do something’ on TikTok one way or another.”

The Treasury Department, CFIUS’s chair agency, said in a statement that the panel is “committed to taking all necessary actions within its authority to safeguard US national security” and declined to comment on TikTok specifically. The White House also declined to comment.

“We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the bandwagon to enact policies based on unfounded, politically charged falsehoods about TikTok,” Hilary McQuaide, a spokesperson for TikTok, said in a statement provided to CNN. “It’s unfortunate that the many state agencies, offices, and universities on TikTok in those states will no longer be able to use it to build communities and connect with constituents.”

A long wait for federal action

US lawmakers have raised bipartisan concerns that China’s national security laws could force TikTok — or its parent, ByteDance — to hand over the personal data of its US users. Security experts have said that the data could allow China to identify intelligence opportunities or to seek to influence US users through disinformation campaigns.

TikTok has said it is working with the US government to address all reasonable national security concerns. It has also taken independent steps to isolate US user data from other parts of its business. Last week, amid the pushback from the states, the company said it would restructure its US-focused content moderation, policy and legal teams under US Data Security, a special group within the company that’s led by US-based officials and walled off organizationally from other teams focused on the rest of the world.

Under the change, content policies TikTok develops for its global audience must be “reviewed and approved” for US audiences by TikTok’s US Data Security group, to ensure the policies meet the standards of any deal approved by CFIUS, the company said. Content moderation involving US users’ data, TikTok said, will be handled by a US-specific trust and safety team within the US Digital Security group, and not by its global trust and safety team.

TikTok has previously acknowledged that employees based in China can currently access user data, and has also declined to commit to stop sending US user information to China.

Harry Broadman, who leads the CFIUS practice at Berkeley Research Group, a consulting firm, said he isn’t privy to the details of the negotiation between TikTok and the US government but called the continued lack of resolution “a mystery.”

“I’m a little bit mystified why it’s taking so long for CFIUS to deal with this problem,” he said. “There must be some issue that’s going on.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a bipartisan pair of congressmen in the House, introduced new legislation that aims to ban TikTok from operating in the United States. In a statement, Rubio expressed frustration with the lack of action at the federal level.

“The federal government has yet to take a single meaningful action to protect American users from the threat of TikTok,” Rubio said. “There is no more time to waste on meaningless negotiations with a CCP-puppet company. It is time to ban Beijing-controlled TikTok for good.”

An opening for Republican governors

With no deal yet between CFIUS and TikTok, the states led by Republican officials appear to have capitalized on the moment from a “tactical, political, winning-points perspective,” Broadman said.

“I don’t think it reflects a deeper suspicion on the part of the Republicans versus Democrats,” he said. “I think it’s more of a tactical question.”

Since government agencies have clear authority to manage their own devices in ways they see fit, barring public employees from using the app represents low-hanging fruit (and easy headlines), Broadman said.

In some ways, the states that have restricted TikTok are following the federal government’s lead. Already, the US military, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security have prohibited their own employees from using TikTok.

States such as Maryland also enacted their TikTok bans on government devices as part of a wider crackdown on Chinese-linked products and services, making the announcement more about China than about TikTok individually. Maryland’s directive also applies to Huawei and ZTE, which the US government has also taken steps to block from US markets.

At least one state is going even further. Last week, Indiana sued TikTok in two separate cases. One claimed that TikTok lures children onto the platform by falsely claiming it is appropriate for users between 13 and 17 years old; the other claims TikTok has “deceived” consumers about whether user data is sufficiently protected from Chinese government access. TikTok has declined to comment on the litigation but has said “the safety, privacy and security of our community is our top priority.”

Some states could also choose to begin advancing meaningful legislation that effectively limits TikTok on private devices, Broadman said, in a move that would more directly impact TikTok’s American user base. But such a move would likely introduce other issues about the regulation of commerce, and potentially result in legal challenges.

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