Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Can Trump actually ban TikTok?

Posted in banning, government, spyware by commorancy on August 1, 2020

There are two sides to this question. Let’s explore both sides.

Technological Ban

Could TikTok actually be technologically stopped from working? Yes, and to be honest, it wouldn’t take that much effort, though it will take some time. Let’s explore how this works.

Domain Name Service (DNS)

DNS is a fundamental internet service that maps Internet names, like google.com, into an IP address, like 8.8.8.8 (which is Google’s DNS server IP address, actually). When you type in a name into the address bar of your browser, DNS converts that name into a numeric IP which is how your browser then connects to and serves you (and your browser) that web content.

This same system applies to all apps including apps like TikTok. When you launch an app on your phone, the app then uses DNS to resolve its service into an IP address which then connects to, for example, TikTok’s servers to begin serving you (and the app) its content.

DNS is the Achilles heel of the internet. It is both a cornerstone and a single point of failure. If DNS fails, then apps fail to connect to their required services.

This is the first touch point where Donald Trump could target. Donald Trump can mandate that the registrar who operates the domain tiktok.com drop serving DNS for this domain… assuming it operates within the United States (hint, it doesn’t).

Further, the secondary non-authoritative DNS system (those servers operated by your ISP or phone provider) relies on caching (or temporary memory storage with expiration timers). So long as the timer hasn’t reached zero, DNS will continue to serve content for that domain based on what’s in the cache rather than asking the authority each time (much faster performance). However, most domains have, at most, a 24 hour countdown timer on cached data. At the end of that 24 hour period, the cached data must be renewed into the cache. If the registrar has disabled DNS resolution for a domain, the cache will fail to renew and the service will go offline.

What that means is that as caches around the Internet slowly expire after the domain registrar has pulled the DNS plug, TikTok will stop working.

The difficulty with this request is which registrar handles this domain. It appears that the tiktok.com domain is operated by the registrar ename.com. Visiting the ename.com registrar’s domain shows that it’s written in Chinese. Since this domain and its IP space is registered and operated outside of the United States, Trump may find it hard to get the registrar to do anything for him.

Even still, Trump could request (via executive order) U.S. based Internet Service Providers to block the tiktok.com domain from being served within U.S. bordered DNS servers. See ISP blocking below for more on this.

App Store

Donald Trump can further request both Apple and Google to remove the TikTok app from each respective app store. This action doesn’t stop the app from working for those who have downloaded it already, but it does stop new users from downloading it. It also means no more app updates for this app.

When Apple or Google release a new operating system update, they can then stop the app from working entirely. In fact, these OS creators could, in fact, wipe the app from any remaining devices with it still installed. However, they can also simply block the app from launching. However, this part can only work if Apple and Google release updates that explicitly perform this operation and that both of these companies agree to doing this in the first place.

Internet Service Provider (ISP) Blocking

The third avenue that Trump can seek requires ISPs to block network access to TikTok’s servers within the United States. This requires contacting and requesting this action of many ISPs all throughout the United States, including all phone carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. This is a long tail request and could take weeks to see roll out. This one also has a low probability for success as ISPs are notorious for not wanting to be told what to do or how to run their networks. This particular request is not one that will work quickly or, indeed, at all in some cases… until the DOJ brings action against ISPs that refuse to comply.

In addition to blocking access at the network level, he can also request DNS blocking for the tiktok.com domain within United States DNS servers operated by ISPs. Basically, an ISP double whammy… assuming ISPs agree (or are forced to agree) to these terms.

App remains functional?

For a time after Donald Trump requests DNS and network IP blocking, the app could remain functional on devices that have it downloaded. Why? Because DNS has up to several day caching in combination with the fact that network IP blocking can be circumvented by the use of a VPN. Though, exactly how many kids are going to run out and buy a VPN service just to use TikTok is unknown.

If Donald Trump can get all four actions lined up (the first three at least) as follows:

  1. App removal
  2. IP network blocking
  3. DNS blocking at the registrar
  4. Secondary DNS blocking within U.S. ISPs

Then, the app may stop working as early as 24 hours for many and for as long as a week for outliers. It is also dependent on how long it takes for each of these steps to be completed. Some companies require long convoluted internal processes and testing to avoid inadvertent screw ups before changes are allowed to proceed.

All of these technical measures are ALL doable. They will all work IF everyone complies (and that’s a tall order).

The most damaging of these four banning steps is seeing Tiktok removed from the app store. If Trump can get the app removed from the stores, this cripples TikTok’s ability to gain new users. That means that for a time, users who have already downloaded the app can continue to use it. But, as they buy new phones, restore their phones before it was installed or if they accidentally delete the app, the app is gone forever. No more TikTok on that phone device.

Removal from the app store also means no more updates. As Apple and Google roll out OS updates, they can invalidate TikTok’s functionality. An OS update can see a small banner pop up that says something similar to “This app is no longer compatible with this device” and prevent it from launching. The only option the user has at that point is to delete the app and move onto something else. If you can’t launch the app, then it’s useless.

This step, by far, is the simplest step to banning an app. It only requires two touch points: Apple and Google. That also assumes that both Apple and Google would be willing participants in this action. They may not. If they choose to challenge Trump’s legal authority to request such actions.. that leads me into the second half of this article.

Legal Authority

I guess the biggest question on people’s mind is, “Does Donald Trump have the authority to ban an app like TikTok within the US?” The short answer is, “I’m not sure”. Trump’s executive authority powers do allow him to write and execute executive orders.

Wikipedia states of Presidential Executive Orders:

Article Two of the United States Constitution gives the president broad executive and enforcement authority to use their discretion to determine how to enforce the law or to otherwise manage the resources and staff of the executive branch. The ability to make such orders is also based on express or implied Acts of Congress that delegate to the President some degree of discretionary power (delegated legislation).

the Wikipedia article further goes on to state:

Like both legislative statutes and regulations promulgated by government agencies, executive orders are subject to judicial review and may be overturned if the orders lack support by statute or the Constitution.

That means that an Executive Order can be challenged via judicial review and may be overturned if unconstitutional or lacks support by statute. And, lacking support by statute may be Trump’s biggest hurdle.

However, the Patriot Act gives the government and, in general, the President broad powers with regards to national security. If he deems TikTok a threat to national security and deems it illegal surveillance, it may invoke clauses under the Patriot Act which would allow him to write an Executive Order supported by the Patriot Act.

Yes, this is all convoluted and tenuously threaded, but it may have enough binding weight to hold together under scrutiny via judicial review.

That’s not say that TikTok is in any way performing surveillance via its app. But, seeing that it was an app developed in China, it is entirely possible that it does contain illegal surveillance mechanisms, otherwise known as spyware.

TikTok as an App

TikTok may seem an innocuous app on the surface. You use it to create a funny small video clippets (ha, just coined a new term) and then upload it for all to see. What you don’t know is whether this seeming innocuous app is spying on you when you’re not using it. You must give this app permissions to your microphone, camera, location and possibly other access. The app can turn on these devices at any time it so chooses, even if when you’re unaware. If you have given any other access permissions, such as access to your Photo Gallery, Clipboard, Contacts or other points of permission, it may have blanket access to far too much private information about you that it can feed to China.

Even if you have installed TikTok once, that data may have been shared back to someone in China. You have no idea exactly what this app is doing under-the-hood. The same can be said of many apps in the app store. However, China is under no obligation to uphold data privacy laws in the United States. If your child has installed the app, it could feed all manner of private data about your child back to China.

U.S. Company?

TikTok apparently has a U.S. presence, but if that presence doesn’t have a hand in the creation, maintenance or dissemination of the app itself, the U.S. arm may not be violating any laws if the app does unsavory things outside of its stated and intended purpose.

Even though it seems TikTok does have a U.S. presence, the company itself seems to be heavily backed by Chinese companies. Since the President’s announcement regarding a potential TikTok ban, this company has quickly attempted to divest its Chinese interest from TikTok and allow it to become a wholly owned and operated U.S. business. That may be too late for this company and this app.

Honestly, sharing tiny entertaining videos of your silly antics is really not an essential part life. It’s fun to watch, but it’s overall something to be watched and forgotten. In other words, none of the content on TikTok is in any way meaningful or, indeed, useful. It is briefly funny content that might elicit a few laughs and then you are encouraged to move on to the next.

What Wish is to trashy Chinese merchandise, TikTok is to trashy occasionally funny clippets. They’re both cut from the same cloth, but cut from different ends. I’ve watched many TikTok videos and I find most of them no more entertaining than watching a TV commercial. TV commercials are, in fact, better filmed and many times better written.

Ultimately, if TikTok is banned, it won’t be missed in the long run. Oh, it will be immediately missed by the tweens and teens alike who rely on that sort of thing to get through the boredom of their day, but even this age group will quickly forget and move onto the next app.

TikTok is ultimately another social media fad riding a temporary wave that will eventually surf its way into the next app fad, and far away from TikTok. A Presidential ban may simply speed this process up exponentially and cut short TikTok as a fad.

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