Public universities in an increasing number of US states have banned TikTok in recent months, and two of the country’s largest colleges just followed suit.
The University of Texas and Texas A&M University are two of the latest colleges to take action against the social app, which is owned by Beijing-based parent company ByteDance.
The flurry of recent campus TikTok bans was inspired by executive orders from a number of state governors. Public universities in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Dakota and now Texas have taken steps to restrict access to the app by blocking it from on-campus Wi-Fi networks and owned devices from school.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered Texas State Agencies to ban the app from government devices in early December, citing privacy and security concerns stemming from TikTok’s Chinese ownership. Abbott characterized the concerns as “growing threats” and gave agencies until mid-February to work around the changes.
“The university is taking these important steps to mitigate the risks to the information in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” said Jeff Neyland, advisor to the University of Texas president for technology strategy. wrote this week.
“As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok collects massive amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where, and how they conduct Internet activities — and provides this treasure trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”
A Texas A&M spokesperson confirmed to the Texas Tribune that “…Students, faculty, staff, and visitors cannot use the app when connected to an A&M network.”
At the beginning of 2023, TikTok is in a strange and contradictory state in the United States. The app, which regularly tops the US charts, is also heavily scrutinized at the federal and state levels.
The Biden Administration banned TikTok from government devices in a bill signed at the end of December. FBI Director Christopher Wray raised red flags about TikTok’s ability to collect data on its users and the potential to proliferate Chinese state influence operations around the same time.
“All of these things are in the hands of a government that does not share our values and has a mission that is antithetical to what is in the interests of the United States,” Wray said. “That should worry us.”
The US government has also long been suspected of conducting its own covert influence operations on social media apps, although the evidence to date suggests that US tech companies have not facilitated that behavior, which would violate platform policies.
While the irony of that particular allegation against ByteDance is worth noting, US-headquartered apps have more resources to push back on government requests and more channels for transparency around those relationships.
The Biden administration’s concerns about China’s ownership of TikTok are themselves an extension of those that took root in the US administration during the Trump era. The Trump administration attempted to force ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. operations to a new owner, though those unprecedented efforts fell apart over time.
ByteDance certainly hasn’t been upfront about that how data flows between the US and China operations, raising eyebrows at what else the company is hiding. Last month, reported Forbes that TikTok’s parent company tracked journalists’ IP addresses in an effort to identify which employees were sharing unauthorized information.
Whether the lingering concerns about TikTok’s prevalence in the US are justified or not, the college bans aren’t likely to have much impact on the app’s popularity. Students can easily switch to their own mobile data plan to get around campus network bans, though many school employees will soon have a firewall between the app and their college accounts — and possibly one less social channel to monitor.