Should fashion be worried about a TikTok ban?

This holiday season has not been a very happy one for TikTok.

Just days before the calendars turned to 2023, US President Joe Biden signed a spending bill for the coming year that included a section banning the new favorite fashion app from the federal government’s devices. The “TikTok Ban on Government Devices Act,” as the bill is unimaginatively titled, gives the government 60 days to establish guidelines for imposing the new restriction.

As of 2020, more than 20 US states have also taken steps to banish the Chinese-owned app from some or all government devices, with momentum accelerating recently. Earlier last month, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers proposed legislation that would have prevented him from operating in the US entirely. The bill faces a tough road to actually becoming law, but it illustrates just how much of a threat the US considers TikTok, despite its reputation as a place for videos of dancing teenagers, silly animals and viral food trends.

In the coming months, US authorities seem poised to step up the pressure even further, which in turn could have ramifications for TikTok’s more than 100 million users in the US, as well as the many fashion companies that reach audiences through it.

What the outcome will be is uncertain. Current options include an outright ban, a forced sale to a non-Chinese company, or stricter regulations that could affect how TikTok manages data or its ability to accept advertising dollars. But with the Republican Party, which led the charge against TikTok, taking control of the US House of Representatives, pressure on the app looks set to mount.

“Congress hates TikTok,” said James Andrew Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Why are US lawmakers so worried about TikTok?

As TikTok’s popularity has grown, so have fears that the Chinese government could access TikTok’s vast troves of data on American users through its parent company ByteDance or take control of the algorithm that determines what users see, allowing China to, in the words of FBI Director Christopher Wray , “manipulate the content, and if they want to, use it for influence operations.” The issue first gained attention under former President Donald Trump, whose attempt to ban the app was blocked by a court and later reversed by Biden.

Chinese propaganda videos aren’t near the top of the list of what users watch, but social media more broadly has become a battleground where foreign agents, including some based in China, run strategic influence campaigns and try to interfere in elections. TikTok has countered claims that the Chinese Communist Party could be using it to win over viewers, saying the Chinese government does not control ByteDance or TikTok. In a statement, the spokesperson called the US bans on the apps hasty and politically motivated.

There are other concerns about the data that TikTok collects. Cybersecurity experts warn that it could be used by foreign actors to access classified information about members of the government or employees of U.S. companies that deal with critical infrastructure. Despite efforts to distance TikTok from China, including hiring Texas-based Oracle to store its US data, they say it’s effectively impossible to do so as long as the app is Chinese-owned, as Beijing can force the country’s private companies to hand over data. ByteDance also recently admitted to accessing data from journalists at the Financial Times and BuzzFeed News while trying to track down leaks from the company, which also raised concerns in Europe.

What can US officials do to restrict TikTok?

While the idea of ​​a complete ban on TikTok in the US may seem strange, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. India, for example, has banned it. Even so, it is not the most likely course of action in the US. The company hasn’t broken any US laws, and while it’s not impossible to impose a blanket ban, according to Lewis, it would be difficult. As Trump revealed, that effort could face legal challenges.

But there are other steps a legislator can take. One option would be to force ByteDance to sell the company. Republican Congressman Mike Gallagher, who introduced legislation to ban the app, said a sale to a US company would be an “acceptable outcome”. The idea was floated in 2020 and under Trump, with companies including Walmart expressing interest in buying the app.

Even then, ByteDance was not happy to part with TikTok. Its massive success likely makes the company less likely to give up on it, and it is doubtful that Beijing would support the sale of one of the few Chinese apps with a truly global audience. The Biden administration is also reportedly split on whether to try to force ByteDance to sell.

Another path would be for TikTok to broker a deal with US authorities to be more transparent and implement more measures to ensure that it processes and stores user data in a way that mitigates their security concerns. Late last year, the company tried to reach such a deal, but many government officials opposed the deal. A TikTok spokesperson said the company continues to work with the US government to find a solution that meaningfully addresses these issues at the federal and state level.

But Lewis said no deal could be tough enough to satisfy Republicans and the Justice Department. An alternative could be to target TikTok’s advertising business, which provides a fast-growing revenue stream.

“The president could use his IEEPA — International Emergency Economic Powers Act — authority to block financial transactions, so an advertiser wouldn’t be able to pay TikTok,” Lewis said. “Congress could force the administration to do it if it’s not willing to do it itself.”

What do TikTok’s troubles mean for fashion brands?

Whatever happens, TikTok has become a political target in the US, especially for Republicans. That alone could damage his reputation and scare away advertisers. Far-fetched scenarios can also come true, as happened with Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter, which has caused many advertisers to question whether they want to be on the platform.

But that doesn’t mean fashion brands should panic or expect the platform to disappear. Lewis expects politicians to use TikTok to score rhetorical points when the new session of Congress begins, but in practice lawmakers have been wary of working against it. Its large audience and popularity might actually isolate it somewhat as it would be risky to interfere with public use of the app.

“No one wants to get on the wrong side of the voters. That’s not going to change,” Lewis said. “For now, it would be best for companies to sit back and see what happens. There are a lot of options that would allow TikTok to continue operating in some way, and that is the most likely outcome.”

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