The U.S. Bill To Ban TikTok Will Not Work – Here’s Why

A new U.S. bill, recently passed by Congress and heading to the Senate, will give the Chinese company ByteDance six months to sell the TikTok — or face a national digital blockade.

The politics behind the TikTok ban and the potential for U.S. user data being shared by TikTok with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have been debated and discussed extensively. However, little has been said about how the U.S. plans to build a digital barrier for TikTok.

Despite the technical challenges of stopping free internet flow, a wide range of countries, including Russia, China, and the Middle East, commonly block and censor different sites in their country.

But banning black-listed sites at a national scale is a more complex task than it may seem, especially as the most cost-effective ways to ban sites can be easily bypassed.

Techopedia talked to experts to understand how the U.S. could block TikTok, how costly the technology is, how it works, and whether users can bypass the blockade easily.

Key Takeaways

  • A new U.S. bill gives ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, six months to sell or face a national ban.
  • The law has stirred political, ethical, and foreign affairs debate, while the U.S. government shows its resolution to the new bill — swiftly passing through Congress and expected to be signed by the President after Senate approval.
  • Little has been reported or said about how the law would be implemented.
  • We talk to experts to understand the technology and technical details required to ban a site on a national scale, what other countries black-list sites and how they do it, and whether the ban can be easily bypassed.

Modern Technologies For National Black-Listed Blockades

The U.S. bill to ban TikTok, Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, offers up strong legal rhetoric with words such as “foreign adversaries,” “social media apps,” and “considered a significant threat to national security.”

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However, the U.S. bill offers little insight into the technical and technological operations of how a national ban on all American households and devices will be applied.

Shawn Loveland, Chief Operating Officer (CPO) at Resecurity told Techopedia that the bill as it is has little technical leverage.

“It depends on the final rules. However, as currently reported, it will only impact the distribution of apps developed by ByteDance. If so, users can access TikTok and other ByteDance services through a web browser—no VPN is needed.”

Loveland added that the bill, as it is today, does not go after TikTok itself but blocks it through app stores and networks, leaving open many opportunities for anyone in the U.S. to access the service.

“As proposed, it does not block access to the TikTok service. The proposal only prohibits users in the U.S. from installing the application from a US-based App Store.”

Technical Methods to Ban TikTok Across a Country

Matthew Conquer, CTO and Head of Operations Bluekong Networks Limited — an international technical engineering services provider focused on end-to-end next-generation IT and network services — talked to Techopedia and gave us specific details on how black-listed sites can be blocked at a national level.

“Putting the political aspects aside, there are multiple ways a government like the USA or Chinese government can block internet access to specific sites.”

1. Internet Service Provider (ISP) Filtering: Costly and Time-Consuming

Conquer explained that governments can instruct Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block access to specific websites by filtering traffic at the network level. This method involves blocking traffic to and from specific IP addresses or domain names associated with the targeted websites.

“This is not a big task for the ISP to complete. However, there would be legalities in enforcing the ISPs to comply with this request and I suspect this would take time and a very large legal bill.”

2. Domain Name System (DNS) Blocking: Easy but Legally Complex

Governments can also block access to websites by instructing ISPs also to block DNS resolution for specific domain names. Conquer broke it down.

“When users attempt to access a blocked website, their DNS requests are redirected to a null or blocking page, preventing access to the desired content.

“Again, this is relatively straightforward to implement, but the enforcement of this act has far-reaching legal ramifications.”

3. URL Filtering, IP Blocking, and More

There are other methods to block websites, some of which are employed actively by companies that restrict access to specific sites to their workers.

The government could, through its government agencies, deploy these technologies, banning sites like TikTok from government workers.

Conquer explained that deep packet inspection (DPI) technology allows governments to inspect and analyze the contents of data packets passing through their networks. By identifying specific patterns or keywords associated with targeted websites, governments can block access to those sites in real time.

“Governments can employ URL filtering systems to block access to websites based on their URLs or web addresses. This method involves maintaining lists of banned URLs and instructing network devices to block access to any URLs on the list.”

In contrast, governments could also ban sites for government workers by blacklisting their IP addresses or using content filtering systems on websites containing specific types of content deemed objectionable or illegal.

The problem with these technologies is that they only work within a specific network or organization. Once the workers leave the workplace, those rules no longer apply. Deploying these technologies at a general public level is “unlikely”, Conquer said.

“They (the government) can also utilize the above for the general population but it would be highly unlikely for the US to be able to put these measures into effect due to their restricted control on the internet itself.”

Won’t Users Simply Find Other Ways To Access TikTok?

Evidently, in the U.S. there is a great number of people that either are not informed and aware of how TikTok might share data with the CCP, or they simply do not care. TikTok is popular worldwide, but its biggest fanbase is in the U.S., with about 140 million active users (about half of all American adults).

Leaving aside the curious fact that India used to be the top country with more TikTok users — 190 million users —- before the country became the first to ban the Chinese social media company, the 140 million Americans, most very young, now rule the platform in usage.

How will those American users react to the ban? Will they be made aware, or will some be lured by the temptation of the forbidden and find new digital ways to get on TikTok?

Loveland from Resecurity said that bypassing a block is way too easy. The following are his words.

“Option 1) Access TikTok using a browser. Option 2) If users want to access TikTok using the official App, they can sideload the application on their device, which allows them to install the application without going through an official US-based app store.”

Loveland added that depending on how the app stores implement the blocking, users could also use any of the best Virtual Private Network providers to access an official app store from an IP with a geolocation that does not block the app’s distribution.

But Loveland’s option four is when things get interesting.

“The bill only addresses applications developed or provided by ByteDance and prohibits hosting ByteDance services in the US. If ByteDance exposes the necessary APIs, a third party unrelated to ByteDance will likely develop and distribute its own ByteDance application through US-based app stores. These apps will then allow access to ByteDance services hosted outside the US.”

Loveland warned that if the proposed bill blocks the URL, in addition to the app store, then the government will have to have a team of specialized workers monitoring if ByteDance or others change URLs to bypass URL filtering.

A VPN? Sure That’d Do The Trick; And More Advanced Tech? That Too

Conquer from Bluekong Networks Limited said that using a VPN would be the most “simple route” to bypass an American ban on TikTok.

In addition to VPNs, users in the U.S. could use a wide range of other tech to bypass the blockade, including proxy servers, the Tor Browser, DNS manipulation, mirror sites, mobile networks, and encrypted connections.

Conquer spoke about how differences between China and the U.S. not only make a national digital ban more challenging but also impact users who access black-listed sites.

“It should be noted that the two main differences between the USA and, say, China is that you won’t be put in prison in the U.S. for attempting to bypass the government-controlled systems to access restricted content (not a site like TikTok anyway).”

Conquer added that in the U.S. — unlike China, which runs and controls all the internet in its country — the internet is managed by private companies and is not state-controlled.

The Great Firewall of China: That’s A Way To Do It

A great number of countries block different sites for different reasons — the most noteworthy include Russia, China, North Korea, countries in the Middle East, and Southeast Asia countries like Myanmar (Burma). But of this list, no other country has built the reputation China has for blocking sites.

China’s internet censorship efforts have such complexities and magnitudes that it is called the Great Firewall of China (GWF). Conquer spoke to the GWF with us in detail.

“It is one of the most sophisticated and comprehensive internet censorship systems globally. The GFW employs advanced filtering techniques, including DNS filtering, IP blocking, URL filtering, and deep packet inspection (DPI), to block access to websites and content deemed politically sensitive, socially destabilizing, or morally objectionable by the Chinese government.”

While it is impossible to estimate the cost of running a system like the Great Firewall of China, it’s fair to assume it does not come cheap and is not a once-and-done deal but a continual investment. Conquer added:

“To put a number on the cost to restrict access to websites would be extremely difficult as the legalities would be far-reaching. ballpark it could be millions of dollars annually to implement and maintain a restriction.”

The Bottom Line

This report set out to investigate the technical and technological challenges that the U.S. bill to ban TikTok presents. While the goal was to steer clear from politics and ethics, when developing technologies for are used for laws and regulations, it is difficult to not consider them both.

Experts say that, in theory, it is possible for the U.S. to ban TikTok — but not on an international level. Furthermore, from a legal perspective, it would be challenging. The U.S. would also have to orchestrate agreements with many private companies that are dedicated to providing internet services for America.

Furthermore, any “cheap-quick-fix” system would be extremely easy to bypass. Analyzing how other countries like China operate blacklisting sites reveals that it takes people, processes, technology, and an ongoing fully-funded program to block sites with more efficiency.

Furthermore, the fact that about half of all Americans (140 million people) use TikTok, further challenges implementation. Black-listing sites nationally is a tricky business, where not everything goes as planned. Conquer’s final thought toTechopedia is:

“Only by implementing punitive measures against users would they be able to reduce the want of people to bypass the restriction, and ultimately you would end up in a totalitarian state situation like the aforementioned countries.”

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Ray Fernandez
Senior Technology Journalist

Ray is an independent journalist with 15 years of experience, focusing on the intersection of technology with various aspects of life and society. He joined Techopedia in 2023 after publishing in numerous media, including Microsoft, TechRepublic, Moonlock, Hackermoon, VentureBeat, Entrepreneur, and ServerWatch. He holds a degree in Journalism from Oxford Distance Learning, and two specializations from FUNIBER in Environmental Science and Oceanography. When Ray is not working, you can find him making music, playing sports, and traveling with his wife and three kids.