School of Public Policy Professor Talks TikTok Ban

Professor Milton Mueller is the co-author of a widely cited report on TikTok.
Professor Milton Mueller argues the proposed TikTok ban has little to do with national security.

Newly passed legislation requiring the sale or ban of TikTok has more to do with political fears over U.S. competitiveness with China than with national security, according to a School of Public Policy cybersecurity policy and internet governance expert..

“It amounts to a new Chinese Exclusion Act for the 21st century,” said Professor Milton Mueller, director of the Internet Governance Project in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy.

The TikTok provision is part of foreign aid legislation signed by President Joe Biden on Wednesday, a day after it easily cleared the U.S. Senate following bipartisan approval in the House. It requires that TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, sell the service or face a U.S. ban.

Advocates of such a ban say TikTok is a national security threat: a backdoor for the Chinese government to sow disinformation and maliciously leverage the private data of U.S. users. 

However, Mueller, whose research has been widely cited in the TikTok debate, has found no credible national security threat in TikTok — certainly nothing, he said, that isn’t also an issue with any other social media service.

“There are foreign influence campaigns going on right now on Facebook, X, and other platforms. There’s nothing unique about TikTok in that regard,” Mueller said.

And while critics would argue that Chinese-owned TikTok is different than Facebook or X — both largely American companies — Mueller says that no matter who owns a social media platform, there’s little national security value in the data of everyday Americans who post dances, silly animal videos, or even political commentary. Risk is inherent in any social media platform and focused on users closely connected to national security functions — risks the sale or closure of one social media platform won’t solve, he said.

Mueller’s analysis of TikTok and the arguments swirling around it are published in a March 2023 report.

He said he doubts that a sale of TikTok is likely, at least in its current form. China’s government has said it sees the artificial intelligence that powers TikTok’s algorithm as Chinese intellectual property that can’t be transferred to the U.S. So, whatever might be sold would be, essentially, a different service.

Mueller echoed many legal experts who have argued that a ban would trigger an immediate court challenge on free speech grounds. However, if such legal challenges were to fail, it would be a blow to the free flow of ideas around the world, Mueller argues.

“If the ban goes through and is upheld by the courts, this would be a disaster for the freedom of information and the ethos of the internet, that we can all be connected,” Mueller said.