TikTok Is Its Own Worst Enemy

I was really rooting for TikTok.

In 2020, when the Trump administration first tried to force TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the app or risk having it shut down, I argued that banning TikTok in the United States would do more harm than good.

Why? Partly because TikTok seemed like a convenient scapegoat for problems — invasive data collection, opaque content policies, addictive recommendation algorithms — that plagued all the big social media apps, and partly because I never bought the argument that the app was a Chinese spying tool hiding in plain sight.

I’m still skeptical of that argument. If the Chinese government wanted to snoop on Americans through their smartphones, it wouldn’t have to use TikTok to do it. It could buy troves of information from a data broker, thanks to America’s nonexistent federal data privacy laws.

And I’m still worried that banning TikTok would be a huge gift to U.S. tech giants like Meta and Google, which own TikTok’s largest competitors — Facebook, Instagram and YouTube — further entrenching winners in a market that already has too little competition.

But over the past few weeks, as a bipartisan bill that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok hurtled toward passage in Congress, I’ve warmed up to the idea that banning TikTok, or forcing its sale, is probably a good idea.

I’ve arrived at this position reluctantly. I still find much of the anti-TikTok case to be based on vague claims of theoretical harms. And I’m sympathetic to arguments made by organizations like the A.C.L.U. and the Electronic Frontier Foundation that banning TikTok would stifle constitutionally-protected speech by American citizens, and could set a precedent that authoritarian governments around the world could cite to justify censoring online speech they did not like.

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