COLUMBUS, Ohio — Time is ticking for one of the most popular social media apps in the world. On Sunday night, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed an executive order to ban TikTok from any state-owned device, but some public officials are advocating for a complete ban.
One billion users worldwide scroll, like and comment on TikTok. Even state government has gotten involved, with the Ohio Dept. of Transportation (ODOT) having more than one hundred thousand followers.
The quirky videos from ODOT sharing safety tips, recruitment montages from the highway patrol and highlights from the latest OSU football game all have one thing in common: They are accounts that have either been shut down or are being evaluated.
As soon as he was sworn into office Sunday, DeWine prohibited state and local government employees from downloading, using or accessing any website or app that is owned by a Chinese business. The most popular for Americans is TikTok, but included other apps like Weibo and WeChat.
This decision disappointed state Rep. Latyna Humphrey (D-Columbus).
“You have the ability to reach constituents and Ohioans in a way… that they haven’t been reached before,” Humphrey said.
The app beneficially changed the way people engage with their government, the Democrat added. Luckily for her, she can still keep her TikTok account.
“It is not going to change my ability because I utilize my own device, the device that… I pay for,” she said.
Chair of the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County Lisa Stickan said the government should also consider banning TikTok completely, not just on government devices. Due to the widespread security concerns about spying and data harvesting, this could be a real national security threat, she said.
“If it is something, particularly a government-owned device that has confidential information… it’s good we’re doing it there,” she said. “But should we explore, down the road, personal devices?”
It’s possible Stickan’s proposal could stifle free speech, but cyberlaw expert and Case Western Reserve University professor Raymond Ku said there is also a way it could be supported.
“If you’re worried about the software being used as a means of… hacking or circumventing protections, that would be a legitimate reason to regulate it,” Ku said.
TikTok isn’t happy with the governor’s decision, with their spokesperson Jamal Brown giving a statement to News 5 explaining that the order “will do nothing to advance cybersecurity” and is “based on unfounded falsehoods.” The company also added that they are working with the federal government to address the concerns. Their full statement can be found below.
“We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon to enact policies that will do nothing to advance cybersecurity in their states and are based on unfounded falsehoods about TikTok. TikTok is loved by millions of Americans, and it is unfortunate that the many state agencies, offices, universities, student groups, and sports teams in those states will no longer be able to use TikTok to build communities and share information.
We are continuing to work with the federal government to finalize a solution that will meaningfully address any security concerns that have been raised at the federal and state level. These plans have been developed under the oversight of our country’s top national security agencies—plans that we are well underway in implementing—to further secure our platform in the United States, and we will continue to brief lawmakers on them.”
Stickan is not the only one to raise the idea of a total ban. Lawmakers around the Statehouse have been debating the idea, but the free speech argument is always being considered.
“We need more information, particularly how China is operating with this and what kind of threat this is,” Stickan said.
Congress also needs to start getting it moving, she added. U.S. Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Chagrin Falls) agreed.
“Both state and federal government have a role to play in stopping the CCP’s malign activities. Until the app is proven to be secure and not being used to target sensitive government data, it has no place on state issued devices,” Joyce said. “I applaud Governor DeWine’s action, which follows the federal government and many other states.”
Humphrey understands the state-owned ban, she said, but what she can’t understand is a total ban on personal devices.
“Now that is going too far,” she said. “TikTok is making strides to make people feel more comfortable to continue to utilize their application. We’ve got to have those clear, open conversations about what you want to see change.”
How could China get TikTok data?
China has a law regarding national intelligence, one that makes businesses required to “assist” the Chinese government in intelligence work, according to the People’s Republic of China.
In a translation to English, Article 7 states: “All organizations and citizens shall support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts in accordance with law, and shall protect national intelligence work secrets they are aware of.”
TikTok’s owners, although they may not want to, are seemingly required by law to give up any data from their users to the Ministry of State Security.
What data is included?
Even if the user is not posting sensitive information on the app, TikTok could hypothetically be used for nefarious purposes, according to Ku.
The app can serve as a “gateway” to the device to medical or financial records or other confidential material. That growing collection of data could help build profiles, he added.
TikTok, as shown in their statement, claims this analysis is unfounded. TikTok did not clarify what in the executive order was based on falsehoods.
Why not other apps that harvest data?
Facebook, now Meta, is known for harvesting data and selling it during the 2016 election and ended up getting sued for billions over it. Even though the Cambridge Analytica scandal’s damage was legitimate and admitted by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook is American-owned.
“The fact that we don’t control the entire pipeline [with TikTok] is troubling,” Ku said. “So while we may think Facebook might be a bad player, an evil actor — however you want to describe them, we are less certain that they’re going to be the tool of a foreign government.”
Facebook may be too close of an ally with the U.S. government (and British consulting firms that allegedly have ties to Russia), but, hey! At least it’s not China.
“It’s less of a concern of [Facebook] that they’re in bed with a foreign nation.”
Popular TikTok accounts and their statuses
OSU, OSU Football, OSU Brutus, etc.: Debating.
“It’s too early to speculate about specific changes,” an OSU spokesperson said. “Ohio State is assessing the executive order and will adjust our practices as needed to comply.”
Cincinnati Zoo: Safe — devices are not state-owned
Akron Zoo: Safe — order doesn’t apply since it is a private nonprofit
Ohio Department of Transportation: Gone
“We exited the platform more than a month ago due to the same concerns that led to the executive order,” a spokesperson said. “We continue to get important messaging about the need to move over and slow down for our crews, investing in safer and more efficient transportation infrastructure, and other information through other social media platforms.”
Ohio State Highway Patrol: Gone
“The Patrol continues to utilize multiple social media platforms for recruitment purposes and will actively promote career opportunities through these outlets and at recruitment events,” its spokesperson said.