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As more GOP governors race to ban TikTok on state devices, a federal ban looms

TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, is based in China. That has stoked concerns about data privacy.
Kiichiro Sato
TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, is based in China. That has stoked concerns about data privacy.

As the U.S. Senate considers banning TikTok on federal devices as a part of its end-of-year spending bill, at least 16 Republican governors have recently taken that step at the state level.

They include North Dakota, Idaho, Iowa, Texas, South Dakota, South Carolina, Maryland, Utah, Oklahoma, Alabama, New Hampshire, Georgia, Tennessee, Montana, Wyoming and Virginia.

Nebraska has had a ban in placesince 2020, which covers all state devices. So has the Florida Department of Financial Services. Louisiana and West Virginia each announced partial bans.

In some of these cases, new restrictions go beyond TikTok and also forbid other Chinese- and Russian-owned platforms. But all of the governors give similar reasons for their actions: concerns about data privacy and surveillance.

"South Dakota will have no part in the intelligence-gathering operations of nations who hate us," South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said in a news release at the end of November that kicked off the recent wave of bans. "The Chinese Communist Party uses information that it gathers on TikTok to manipulate the American people, and they gather data off the devices that access the platform," she continued.

Why is this happening now?

Many governors cite FBI Director Christopher Wray's testimony about TikTok to Congress this fall as driving their decisions.

"The director of the FBI recently warned that the Chinese government can control TikTok's content algorithm, allowing it to perpetrate influence operations within the United States," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to the lieutenant governor and state House speaker announcing that state's ban.

Part of that concern is a 2017 law passed in China that requires organizations and citizens to support national intelligence gathering. This summer, Buzzfeed reported that engineers at TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, were accessing U.S. user data in China, something the company later confirmed could happen.

While at the federal level, efforts to block TikTok on government computers are progressing with bipartisan support, at the state level the GOP leads the charge.

"It's really important to establishing a Republican brand. A central tenet of what unites Republicans now is taking a strong stance [and] standing up to China," says Thad Kousser, professor of political science at U.C. San Diego.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order effectively banning TikTok within the United States. TikTok sued, and the ban was never enforced.

How do government employees use TikTok?

In 2021, TikTok announced it had reached one billion monthly global users. In the U.S., two-thirds of all teens say they use it, according to the Pew Research Center.

As a result, some government agencies turned to the platform to spread their messages. NPR found examples of state government agencies on TikTok, ranging from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to the Oregon Secretary of State.

Some of the bans also apply to state university systems, which may be using the app for recruiting.

As a result of its ban, Idaho just announced no one will be able to use TikTok over the Wi-Fi connections at itspublic universities.

What does TikTok say?

TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told NPR the company is "disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon to enact policies that will do nothing to advance cybersecurity in their states."

She says TikTok will continue to work with the federal government to try to "meaningfully address" security concerns. The company is currently negotiating with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) over theterms of its operations in this country.

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Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.