With government workers in the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, and elsewhere recently banned from installing or having TikTok on their official devices, is it time for companies to follow their lead? With greater awareness of allegedly nefarious data-harvesting activity, the clock is ticking.
Political leaders posit that because TikTok is owned by Bytedance, China’s state-linked technology corporation with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, there is a significant cybersecurity risk. The wildly popular social media platform – with 150 million U.S. users, it is currently one of the country’s top-ranking apps – is being used to promote the party’s interests overseas, runs the logic.
Organizations must think hard about whether these two supposed issues are worth not banning the app, and if, on balance, the company and employees benefit more or less from engaging with and using TikTok to inspire and amplify content.
There are other things to consider, not least the likely elevation of already heightened geopolitical tensions. “While China itself has a ‘great firewall’ that effectively blocks U.S.-owned internet platforms, the proposed U.S. ban could accelerate the shift towards deglobalization,” said Kenneth Rogoff, a professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University, in the Guardian.
As alarmist as that statement might appear, businesses should be mindful of the potential fallout. Dr. Jonathan D. T. Ward, the founder of Atlas Organization, a Washington DC-based consultancy focused on U.S.-China global competition, argued that pressure on organizations on both sides of the atlantic ocean to snub Chinese technology firms would increase once employees and customers fully understood the moral implications.
Moral and morale issues
Ward is an advocate for organizations banning the app in the U.S. “Companies in China’s technology sector, including Bytedance, Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and Huawei, have all been exposed by international investigations and media for their role in China’s surveillance and censorship state and in some cases for participating in the human-rights atrocities taking place in Xinjiang,” said Ward.
After urging employers and employees to “find alternatives to TikTok,” Ward added: “In the dangerous geopolitical competition with China that has begun, and in light of the role of China’s technology sector in human rights atrocities, it does not make sense to allow this kind of influence to continue to take root here at home.”
Global Google searches for “is TikTok banned” increased 488% in the month leading up to the decisive action taken by Joe Biden in mid-March, pointed out Michelle Stark, sales and marketing director at Fasthosts, a website domains and hosting provider. Further, in the same period, searches for “delete TikTok account” jumped 32%, and “get rid of TikTok” rose 111%.
U.K.-based Stark warned, though, that even if governments or organizations banned the app, it would be problematic to monitor. “While routine checks seem like they would be the best way around this, this does present the possible issue of employees feeling like their privacy is being invaded, or that management doesn’t trust them,” she said.
Businesses that use TikTok as a central element in their marketing strategy or workplaces encouraging or employing influencers have the most to lose with a ban. It would be like “clipping the wings of a ‘work influencer’ who may have used the platform to showcase their skills, creativity, and unique perspectives on work-related topics,” said U.K.-based entrepreneur Rebecca Leppard.
Tip of the TikTok iceberg
Even if companies – or governments – decided to implement a blanket ban, there might be a strong business case to find a middle way. “There are workarounds you could implement,” said Stack. For instance, an organization might have “a dedicated device for TikTok that contained no other company information to try and prevent any issues that could arise from possible data and privacy breaches.” But, she added: “It depends on how long you’re willing to wait for a return on your investment.”
For the time being, it doesn’t appear that private companies intend to follow the example set by governments to ban TikTok, said Iona Silverman, intellectual property and media partner at London law firm Freeths. She wondered whether it would be wise, politically and financially, to force businesses to take action, as is being mooted in the U.S. at the time of writing. “In considering this, they should not underestimate the impact that would have on the economy.”
Developing her case, Silverman said: “Content creators rely on social media for their livelihood, and loss of income from no longer being able to post to TikTok would severely impact their earning power.” She added that if politicians didn’t consider the role of an influencer to be a ‘real job,’ they needed to “think again. For many thousands of people, it is not a ‘side hustle,’ but the main way they earn their living.”
Frank Johnson, vp U.S. federal at Washington-headquartered Lookout, a cloud-security firm, hoped that this ongoing TikTok situation would make companies more vigilant in using other apps for work. “TikTok is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There are currently more than 9 million apps identified in the Lookout data corpus that communicate with internet protocols, domains or servers in China.”
He added: “The government and private sector need to increase collaboration together on this critical issue, especially to promote awareness on how mobile app permissions can put data at risk.”