President Joe Biden approved a limited TikTok ban Thursday when he signed the 4,126-page spending bill into law. The ban prohibits the use of TikTok by the federal government’s nearly 4 million employees on devices owned by its agencies, with limited exceptions for law enforcement, national security and security research purposes.
The ban comes after a wave of actions against the viral video app in recent weeks amid mounting security concerns raised by media reports, China hawks and politicians. Given the increasing scrutiny of TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, it could be just the beginning of challenges to come for the app.
The renewed pressure on the app under the Biden administration comes two years after a proposed ban by then-President Donald Trump was stopped in court.
Since 2020, a bubbling movement led largely by conservatives has maintained a minor interest in a TikTok ban.
TikTok poured fuel on the criticism in December when it confirmed to Forbes that its employees improperly tracked the locations of three of the magazine’s journalists, using methods that Forbes said amounted to spying. One ByteDance executive resigned and another was fired, Forbes reported Dec. 22.
Insiders said the incident contributed to a growing skepticism toward the app, encouraging new bans in U.S. states and at universities.
Megan Stifel, a former Department of Justice national security official, said the incident will make it more difficult for TikTok to show that it manages data responsibly. TikTok and the Biden administration, including the Justice Department, have been locked in negotiations over a proposed security agreement that would put the company on more stable footing.
“Certainly, it gives additional leverage to DOJ to say, ‘Look, the record is not positive,’” said Stifel, now the chief strategy officer for the Institute for Security and Technology, a think tank.
TikTok on Friday denounced the new ban on its app for federal agencies.
“We’re disappointed that Congress has moved to ban TikTok on government devices — a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests — rather than encouraging the Administration to conclude its national security review,” the company said in a statement.
It added that the proposed security agreement with the Biden administration would address the security concerns of lawmakers and regulators.
“These plans have been developed under the oversight of our country’s top national security agencies — plans that we are well underway in implementing — to further secure our platform in the United States, and we will continue to brief lawmakers on them,” TikTok said.
Under pressure from lawmakers and regulators, the company in early December shuffled its staff to create a new U.S.-based team for trust and safety issues. The purpose was to “build further trust and confidence in the protection of US user data and compliance,” it said in a blog post.
A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment.
TikTok has been the target of numerous government and institutional bans in the past month. The House on Monday banned it from any work mobile phones. At the state levels, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, banned it on state phones and computers, as did about a dozen other Republican-led states including Alabama, Georgia and Virginia.
And some of the state bans apply not just to state government employees, but also to students and anyone else using campus Wi-Fi at state schools such as the University of Oklahoma and Auburn University in Alabama — part of TikTok’s core user base in the U.S.
The wave of bans could be just the beginning of the challenges that TikTok could be looking at in the next year, according to national security analysts and tech policy advocates. An actual U.S. ban of the app for all citizens may still be unlikely and in the end unworkable, but the app’s critics are promising a fight nonetheless.
“I have serious concerns with any app that poses a risk to Americans’ personal data and information and has deep ties to China,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in a statement to NBC News. He’s one of several Republican senators who have been pressuring TikTok for more information.
“We need clear answers on TikTok’s data sharing policies and must ensure the platform is being held accountable for its practices,” he said.
In early December, top House Republicans, including some who will likely lead House committees next year, wrote to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew demanding a meeting, citing an earlier Forbes investigation into how the app handles reports of child sexual exploitation.
It’s not clear if the meeting has taken place. A spokesperson for the group of Republicans did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and TikTok did not respond to a question about the meeting demand.
Congressional hearings would serve several purposes, said Joel Thayer, the president of the Digital Progress Institute, an advocacy group on tech and telecommunications issues. He said hearings would raise public awareness, get witnesses on the record and create the basis for potential future legislation.
“If I were gaming this out, I would want as much on the record as possible to justify a harsh action like banning a company from our markets,” he said. He has written in support of restrictions on TikTok.
But, he added, the end result is far from clear, with less appetite in the Senate for anything approaching a ban on overseas software. He said he expects to see legislation from Republicans requiring an agency such as the Federal Trade Commission or the Federal Communications Commission to step up its privacy reviews of TikTok.
“How far are they willing to go, outside of banning it from government devices?” he said. “President Biden is more inclined to want to keep TikTok in the market.”
Biden has not spoken in detail about what should happen to TikTok, but he has repeatedly courted the app’s stars and the millions of people who follow them. In October, he spent more than an hour at the White House with eight TikTok influencers for a voter turnout effort ahead of the midterm elections, The Washington Post reported.
On the House side, there’s no shortage of incoming committee chairs who want to take on TikTok. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California has said he plans to create a select committee on China led by a former Marine counterintelligence officer, Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin.
“We’re not ready to release details around hearings, but the threat posed by TikTok is certainly an issue the committee will look into,” Gallagher’s office said in a statement to NBC News.
Gallagher has sponsored a bill to ban TikTok from operating in the U.S., and in a statement this month about the surveillance of Forbes journalists, he called TikTok “CCP-controlled spyware,” referring to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Stifel, the former Justice Department official, said the types of bans that have been spreading to government employees may not be as effective as TikTok’s critics hope. TikTok is available via a web browser, for example.
“The ability to really wall it off is, at the end of the day, probably quite remote,” she said. “We can ban it on government devices. Companies can decide to ban it. But there are always workarounds.”
It’s possible that some of the anti-TikTok energy in Congress could be channeled into broader legislation. There’s been a yearslong effort to write a comprehensive, nationwide data security law that would cover Americans’ data held not only by overseas companies, but also by U.S. tech giants.
“We don’t have a credible public approach to data privacy in America today,” said Vilas Dhar, the president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a grant-making organization that focuses on the social impact of technology.
“That means the American people are interacting every day with possible threats to their privacy, and we don’t have a regulatory system to respond to that,” he said.