TikTok Banned in the US along with VPNs? All About the US RESTRICT Act
TikTok US ban has been the main talk of Congress lately. If the bill is put in place, it could lead to prohibiting or restricting many other apps and tech products besides TikTok. Does it mean our digital freedom is at risk? Also, would the TikTok ban bill criminalize the use of VPNs? Read along to find the answers to all these burning questions.
America banned TikTok? A quick overlook of the problem
Firstly, no — TikTok isn’t banned in the US for all users (at least, yet). As of now, the app is only blocked on government devices in the US, Australia, France, Britain, and other countries in Europe.
Why all these talks? Let’s break it down:
- In early March, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) introduced the US RESTRICT Act — a legislation that seeks to restrict access to certain apps and websites deemed harmful to national security.
- The Act has been proposed in response to concerns about foreign apps and websites collecting data on American citizens.
- In their statement, the White House almost immediately supported the RESTRICT Act.
- Although the bill is a long way from being executed, it’s already supported by a quarter of the Senate.
So why TikTok?
Although the app wasn’t mentioned in the bill directly, Senator Warner explicitly stated in a Fox News interview that the bill could be used to ban TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance:
As such, the RESTRICT Act is often referred to as “TikTok ban bill” and is the reason behind “Is TikTok banned in the US?” talks.
What has TikTok said?
First, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew appealed directly to the app’s users. He highlighted the large scale of TikTok users (more than 150 million active users), small and medium-sized businesses and its own employees based in the U.S.
On March 23, he appeared before Congress. Chew stressed TikTok’s independence from China (for example, the app is unavailable in Mainland China) and underlined its US ties. However, many lawmakers and intelligence officials remain skeptical about whether the data can truly be secure as long as TikTok is owned by a Chinese company.
Project Texas or TikTok’s plan to remain operational in the US
Little bit of context: concerns about potential national security risks posed by TikTok go way back. In 2020, Trump administration tried to force the sale of the Chinese company. The Biden administration revoked the executive order in 2021. Instead, they decided to review security of many foreign apps and push for a comprehensive national privacy law.
TikTok knew it was in trouble and had to come up with a feasible solution. Enter Project Texas, which TikTok has been working on since 2021. The company has already spent over $1.5 billion on securing data under this project. It seeks to ease lawmakers’ privacy concerns by relocating all US user data to centers outside of China in partnership with Texas-based Oracle. TikTok hopes it’ll help reach a final agreement with the US government in protecting user data and US national security interests.
But with debates about TikTok’s risks to U.S. national security getting more heated, more and more policymakers are demanding an outright ban. Here’s when the RESTRICT Act comes in.
TikTok US ban bill: What is the RESTRICT Act about?
The RESTRICT Act is short for the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act. Introduced on March 7, the bill targets technology associated with “foreign adversaries” of the U.S. Those include 6 countries — China (with Hong Kong and Macau), Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.
If implemented, the Act would give the Department of Commerce the power to block the access to specific foreign technology considered a threat to national security. However, the bill doesn’t explain how the ban would work exactly. All we know is that it “gives the secretary of commerce a series of tools to mitigate, divest, up to and including banning,” according to Senator Warner.
Experts also believe the bill isn’t just about banning TikTok — it’s an effort to give President Joe Biden more leverage to force the sale of the app to a U.S. company.
US RESTRICT Act’s sweeping scope extends beyond TikTok
Moreover, a broad and unclear scope of the bill could affect much more than just TikTok. The proposed legislation uses unclear terms like “desktop programs,” “mobile apps,” “gaming platforms,” “payment solutions,” and “web applications.” So the proposed bill could apply to nearly any type of technology from the 6 authoritarian countries. Besides, it tends to focus on software used by 1+ million people in the U.S. For example, companies like Huawei, ZTE, and Russia-based Kaspersky are already banned from federal computers.
Now, with lawmakers pushing for this bill expressing concerns about US user data, you may wonder — “what type of data does TikTok really collect?” Is much of it sensitive?
What type of data does TikTok collect?
Automatically collected data
So, TikTok may collect the following info from you (spoiler alert: it doesn’t differ much from extensive data collecting policies of giants like Twitter or Facebook):
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Experts who have looked into TikTok state that it doesn’t seem to collect more data or work differently from other social media apps. Though that’s still a lot of personal information, it doesn’t make TikTok necessarily dangerous – at least, not more than other popular social media platforms, such as Likee and Instagram. But American policymakers don’t think so, pushing to ban TikTok in the US. And how does one avoid blocks?
WIll the RESTRICT Act criminalize using VPNs?
When it comes to online blocks and censorship, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a way out for many since it keeps your digital activity and location private. Using a VPN encrypts your data, runs all your web activity through a remote server in a different location, and gives you an anonymous IP address.
Is a VPN illegal in the US?
No, VPNs are entirely legal in the US. However, some social media users and tech publications voice concerns that the RESTRICT Act would criminalize them if used to access “foreign adversaries’” products. Electronic Frontier Foundation, the advocate for digital rights, warns that “due to undefined mitigation measures coupled with a vague enforcement provision, the bill could also criminalize common practices like using a VPN or side-loading to install a prohibited app.” The Secretary may impose penalties for each violation — a fine of up to $1 million, 20 years in prison, or both.
Sounds scary, yes. But Senator Warner’s office disagrees with this interpretation. Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Warner, said that,
Cohen further explained that the Act only imposes criminal penalties on those engaged in sabotage, subversion of communications technology, interfering in or altering the results of a federal election, or causing catastrophic effects on U.S. critical infrastructure.
So, does the RESTRICT Act make VPNs illegal in the US?
No, there are no restrictions related to the use of VPNs as of now. The RESTRICT Act doesn’t say anything about banning VPNs or punishing individuals who use them. The people behind the bill want to use it to punish companies that they think are risky, like Kaspesky or TikTok. However, the way the bill is written leaves room for doubt about who and what it covers.
Finally, what if the US government bans TikTok? How do ordinary citizens feel about it? Statistics may surprise you. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, more than twice as many Americans support the U.S. government banning TikTok as oppose it, while a sizable share aren’t sure.
Nevertheless, many believe the TikTok US ban is a threat to digital freedom. Electronic Frontier Foundation considers the Act an “absolutely the wrong approach to protecting data privacy”:
This can potentially limit freedom of expression by giving the government too much power to ban apps and services that allow communication.
So, what now?
TikTok’s future in the US: What’s the direction?
TikTok started as a video-sharing platform for short clips, but it has since grown into a comprehensive video service with content for every niche and is now a sensation around the world.
With over 210 millions downloads in 2021 in the US alone, it’s safe to say that TikTok US ban would be a significant loss for both its loyal users and the company. But there is still hope that an agreement can be reached. For example, if Project Texas is fully implemented or if TikTok sells off a majority stake to a US company.
Ultimately, with so much money and private interests at stake, it seems unlikely that the US government and ByteDance will not find a way to continue marketing TikTok in the US safely. So let’s hope for a positive outcome as the case unfolds and not forget about boosting our online security. Here at VeePN, we always encourage to stay informed and take steps to protect your privacy online.
FAQ: Is TikTok Banned in the US?
TikTok is only blocked on government devices in the US, Australia, France, Britain, and other countries in Europe. This is due to growing privacy and cybersecurity concerns about the Chinese-owned video-sharing app. However, US lawmakers push for the “TikTok ban bill” to be implemented which would restrict the access to the app altogether. Learn more in our article.
On March 7, 2023, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) introduced the US RESTRICT Act — a legislation that seeks to restrict access to certain apps and websites deemed harmful to national security. That would include TikTok. However, the bill is a long way from becoming law. So we don’t know when (or if, at all) the Act will be put into effect.
Law and technology experts say that if the TikTok US ban does happen, it’d likely result in Apple and Google removing TikTok from app stores and turning off app updates. Everyone who’s installed it would still have it, but with updates turned off, the app may not work properly with the phone’s operating system in the future.