TikTok Time’s Up: Wells Fargo tells employees to remove TikTok from work phones as the White House considers banning the video-sharing app

July 23, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Worried about TikTok’s Chinese ownership, Wells Fargo is telling employees to remove the app from their work phones, even as the US government considers banning TikTok altogether.

What does this mean?

On 10 July, US bank Wells Fargo ordered its staff to delete the TikTok App from work devices over “privacy and security” concerns. The Bank stated that “corporate-owned devices should only be used for company business”.

Most of the unease surrounding TikTok stems from its owners, ByteDance, a Chinese company headquartered in Beijing. 

TikTok, which has over 800 million active users worldwide, is not available in China. Chinese citizens use an equivalent called Douyin instead. TikTok and Douyin both utilise the same software but maintain separate networks in order to comply with Chinese censorship restrictions. Nonetheless, these Chinese roots have prompted US officials to raise concerns regarding privacy and security

Last week, Donald Trump’s administration confirmed they are considering banning Chinese-owned apps, including TikTok, over national security fears.

What's the big picture effect?

TikTok appears to be the latest political scapegoat in the US-China trade war. The Trump administration has already issued a ban on commercial trade with foreign telecom companies like Huawei and ZTE. To see our article on that, click here. Despite a lack of concrete evidence to demonstrate that TikTok poses a genuine risk to US national security and TikTok insisting it has never shared user data with the Chinese government; could Trump actually ban TikTok in the US? It’s complicated.

India has recently tightened its digital borders with China by banning TikTok altogether. Currently, there is little precedent for the US government to introduce a ban in the same way. Any outright ban would likely be declared unconstitutional as it would infringe upon US citizens’ right to free speech as declared in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Furthermore, US courts have established that software code is protected under the First Amendment, making a complete ban even more unlikely.  

The White House though could still use other tactics. Kurt Opsahl, general counsel at digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), outlines two scenarios that could spell trouble for Gen Z’s favourite social network.

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, confirmed that certain branches of the US military have banned TikTok on government-owned devices. Opsahl foresees this ban on military personnel expanding to cover more federal workers. Similarly, the White House might prevent any federal money from being spent on the app.

A more aggressive approach could involve implementing export regulations that require US companies to obtain a license to do business with TikTok. For practical purposes, such a licensing requirement would likely target Apple and Google, whose app stores are where the vast majority of people download TikTok in the first place.

Although all of this suggests that a TikTok ban is relatively unlikely, Democrat and Republican senators have called for investigations of the app’s ties to China. Regardless, in the short term, Americans should feel confident TikTok is not disappearing anytime soon. It’s too popular to ignore, but in all likelihood, it could be too popular to ban as well.

Report written by Thomas Farrell

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