Opposing the TikTok Ban: A Fight for the Youth of our Democracy
Miles Cooperman (PPS ‘25)
At any point in the upcoming months, 150 million Americans may open their phone to a shocking disappointment: they cannot find the beloved app TikTok. The app’s disappearance is becoming an increasingly likely possibility because of the RESTRICT Act, a federal bill which would give the government power to ban TikTok over data privacy concerns. Yet, politicians should reject legislation creating a ban because opposing the app would blatantly disregard their constituents and cause citizens, particularly young ones, to lose confidence in government.
Over the past three years, TikTok has cemented itself as a fixture of American pop culture. Users from all parts of American society rely on the app as a daily source of unlimited entertainment and information. Content creators depend on it as their main source of income. As many as 5 million businesses use the app, with 78% of small-business owners gaining immense profits after just 6 months of marketing on TikTok.
Yet, while all of these groups enjoy the benefits of TikTok, concerns over data and privacy have built momentum for a federal ban on the app. TikTok collects information on its users’ names, contact information, IP addresses, and browsing history. While this is no different than the data collected by other social media platforms, legislators target TikTok in specific because of their Chinese parent company, ByteDance. Since the Chinese Communist Party requires companies to provide any data they request, legislators fear TikTok’s pervasiveness in the U.S. grants China with a way to spy on U.S. citizens and influence politics through misinformation.
While TikTok is currently still available to the general public, there are already limits on its use. All federal employees can no longer have the app on any of their devices, 32 states have banned the app on government devices, and several universities have made it unavailable on their networks. Most recently, Montana became the first state to institute a total ban, passing a bill that prohibits individuals from downloading TikTok and fines any app store that still has it available as of January 2024. Montana’s governor has yet to comment on whether he will sign the bill into law.
Although the RESTRICT Act has received bipartisan support, a progressive caucus has begun to push back on the policy. They agree that there are valid concerns and inherent dangers with TikTok’s current structure; however, their main focus is that banning TikTok fails to resolve the underlying data privacy concerns with social media apps in general. The RESTRICT Act only targets apps and technologies produced by foreign adversaries. What is really needed is a more comprehensive reform that limits the amount of data all social media companies, both foreign and domestic, can collect and prohibits them from selling information to third parties.
In order to strengthen their arguments, the progressive caucus opposing the bill must also emphasize the disastrous political consequences that come with establishing a ban. Removing the app would devastate small business owners, content creators, and most importantly, young people.
TikTok is currently the most downloaded app for members of Gen Z ages 18–24, a group that played a decisive role in shaping the outcome of the 2022 election. If politicians end up banning the app, it will signal to these civically engaged young people that the government doesn’t care about their preferences, causing them to become disillusioned. When citizens lose trust in the government and believe politicians ignore their constituents, engagement with the political process drops, undermining a democracy’s stability and productivity. Since young citizens’ participation has drastically risen in the past decade, politicians must be cautious of taking any decisions that would reverse this trend.
Thus, while some legislators argue TikTok poses an existential threat to America’s democracy, it is crucial to recognize that banning it would alienate young voters, creating an equally dangerous threat. Rather than banning the app, politicians should pursue solutions which mitigate harms while keeping it available to the mass public. One realistic option is helping TikTok implement “Big Texas,” a plan to store all U.S. data on a cloud managed by Oracle and keep data out of reach from the Chinese government. Another possibility is mobilizing support behind the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, which is a data privacy bill giving consumers more control and transparency over the data companies can collect from them. Regardless of how the government proceeds, they must prioritize preventing TikTok’s disappearance and avoiding the subsequent harmful political alienation that would occur.
Miles Cooperman (PPS ‘25) is from Thousand Oaks, CA and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.