The UK government has banned Chinese-owned social media app TikTok from official devices, following similar decisions taken in the United States and Europe.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said earlier this week that his government would “look at what our allies are doing.” It appears the hammer has now fallen.
The ban means the video-sharing app will be prohibited from smartphones and other internet-connected devices used by government ministers and civil servants.
TikTok facing landslide of distrust
The UK government’s move stems from fears about the app’s security and data sharing practices, since TikTok’s Beijing-based owner ByteDance may be subject to local laws requiring firms to help the Communist Party when requested.
Several government departments own TikTok accounts, including the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The Sunday Times reports the decision follows reviews by both the government security group and experts at GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre.
Last month, Science Secretary Michelle Donelan appeared to rule out a TikTok ban, claiming it would be a “very, very forthright move” and calling for significant evidence to justify such a decision.
America’s top intelligence officials believe this evidence is already in place, having recently suggested the app is a threat to national security. Vice Chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Marco Rubio said, “I would imagine that TikTok is probably one of the most valuable surveillance tools on the planet.
“If we went out and decided to build something like this of our own to influence or spy on another society, I’m not sure we could build something like this. And we’ve invited them in and protected them by our laws.”
TikTok has issued strong denials against such allegations, saying they are based on “misplaced fears and seemingly driven by wider geopolitics.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning, meanwhile, has scorned the US ban, saying “How unsure of itself can the world’s top superpower like the US be to fear young people’s favorite app like that?”
While the US banned TikTok from official devices in December, EU lawmakers voted to ban it from all smartphones used by members of parliament and their staff last month. India, Canada, Denmark and Belgium have taken similar action.
ByteDance in US cross-hairs
China continues to blame the bans on a disinformation campaign, insisting the United States has failed to provide evidence of TikTok’s threat to national security.
According to TikTok, the Biden administration has now demanded that TikTok’s Chinese owners ByteDance divest their stakes in the app or face a possible U.S. ban, echoing a similar threat by Donald Trump in 2020. TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter, however, gave these demands short shrift.
“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” she said.
TikTok currently has over 100 million users in the U.S, meaning a wider ban for consumers would have an immediate impact and escalate tensions between the United States and China. The company’s Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to appear before Congress next week.
Stocks of TikTok rivals Meta and Snapchat saw a bounce after reports of a potential TikTok ban.
— Worldwide Exchange (@CNBCWEX) March 16, 2023