TikTok banned? Las Vegas businesses and officials weigh in

In just three years, local business owner Alexandra Lourdes has grown her TikTok following from zero to 1.9 million. The co-founder of Café Lola and Saint Honoré Doughnuts & Beignets uses the social media platform to give a “behind the scenes look” at what it’s like to be the owner of a restaurant and a working mom. The app has allowed her to reach more people and helped grow her business.

“We initially were just using Instagram and Facebook, but when we got on TikTok … I noticed videos would just go super viral,” Lourdes says. “And it would make a huge impact because it was going viral to the right people … who were either traveling to Las Vegas or who lived here. When they open their phone, they all of a sudden see this video … [and] we would have lines out the door all day long.”

When Lourdes joined TikTok in 2020 at the height of the pandemic, she and business partner Lin Jerome had three restaurants. Today, they have seven locations across the Las Vegas Valley. She says she meets people from all over the world who discovered her restaurants through TikTok.

“Their algorithm and their recommendation feature is so beneficial for small businesses, because sometimes you don’t have those marketing dollars that a huge corporation has, a whole marketing team behind them,” Lourdes says. “For me to be able to post a video and be able to reach millions of people for free … that’s so valuable.”

Lourdes is one of 170 million U.S. TikTok users. Many of those users are up in arms as Congress considers a bill that could result in a ban on TikTok on all devices nationwide.

The U.S. House passed a bill on March 13 that would require the Beijing-based owner ByteDance to sell TikTok within six months of the bill’s enactment. Lawmakers have said the crackdown stems from concerns about user data privacy and national security, based on the belief that the Chinese government could somehow access user data and influence the app’s algorithm, which determines what content it serves to users.

According to a February threat assessment released by the American intelligence community, “TikTok accounts run by a [People’s Republic of China] propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation for years has said that TikTok could pose national security risks, warning that the Chinese government may be able to control the data of millions of users and influence users through the app.

TikTok has always denied that it could be used as a tool of the Chinese government. According to the Associated Press, the company has said it never shared U.S. user data with Chinese authorities. To date, the U.S. government has not provided concrete evidence that TikTok has shared U.S. data with Chinese authorities.

If the bill passes and ByteDance decides not to divest, then TikTok would be prohibited from app stores until divestiture occurs, according to the bill.

After an overwhelming 352-65 vote to pass in the House, the bill has moved on to the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the New York Times that he has not decided whether to bring it to the floor.

“The concern that lawmakers raised is … that there’s the potential that the Chinese government could meddle in the app, its algorithm or its data and gain access to things about American citizens,” says Greg Moody, director for UNLV’s cybersecurity program.

He emphasizes that concerns about data privacy and national security aren’t unique to TikTok. Facebook has had data breaches like the Cambridge Analytica incident that was said to have interfered with 2016 presidential campaigns.

Lawmakers’ main point of contention with TikTok is just that TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, Moody says.

“They’re being singled out because of state law in China [and] adversarial relations with the Chinese government. But does that mean that using Facebook or any of Meta’s other apps, Instagram or any other platforms is safer? No, they all have absurd amounts of data about us; if you use it, you have a risk of it being breached,” Moody says. “And the fact is, in the case of Facebook we know that they have breached their data multiple times. And there’s been no such reported leak about TikTok, at least at this point.”

Furthermore, TikTok data for U.S. citizens is not housed in China. According to Axios, TikTok agreed to partner with software giant Oracle and in 2022 began routing all its U.S. user data to Oracle’s cloud infrastructure headquartered in Texas. Oracle then began vetting TikTok’s algorithms to ensure they’re not manipulated by Chinese authorities.

“All the data for U.S. citizens is not housed in China; it’s housed in a giant data vault in Texas. And the workers that have access to the data, none of them are Chinese citizens. They’re all U.S. citizens,” Moody says. “Do I think this concern from lawmakers is highly warranted? No. I think TikTok is aware of this concern, and they’ve been very proactive and structured things in a way so that they can reduce this potential risk if the Chinese government were to do that.”

However, lawmakers and some business owners are not convinced by TikTok’s efforts to secure user data and to ensure that there is no Chinese interference. Statements from three of Nevada’s U.S. Representatives who voted for the bill—Republican Rep. Mark Amodei and Democrats Rep. Susie Lee and Rep. Dina Titus—all cite data privacy and national security concerns.

“As long as TikTok is Chinese-owned, our national security is at risk because the government of China—which views America as an enemy—has the ability to collect personal data on our kids and citizens,” Lee said in a partial statement.

Tom Taicher, owner and CEO of Nectarlife, a Las Vegas-based company that makes bath products sold in 16 locations worldwide, says he thinks a ban would be worthwhile if it means protecting U.S. national security. He says there are other, safer alternatives for businesses to do free marketing on social media.

“YouTube came up with Shorts. Instagram has the Reels. And, to be honest, it’s exactly the same as TikTok. So, if they ban TikTok, the creators will shift to Shorts on YouTube or Reels on Instagram,” Taicher says. “It’s not really going to make a difference.”

On the other hand, Lourdes points out that TikTok is not just about small businesses, but also communities and support groups that use TikTok, from people going through illnesses who are finding advice and connecting to health care, to campaigning to free wrongfully convicted prisoners through the app.

“The way that you can make connections and community is just unparalleled,” she says.

Las Vegas Weekly reached out to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Sen. Jacky Rosen to find out their views on the proposed legislation. They provided the following statements.

“Senator Cortez Masto believes TikTok’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party are deeply concerning and that we need more information about how the app is distributing the large amounts of data it collects. She is currently reviewing this specific legislation,” said a spokesperson for Cortez Masto.

“Senator Rosen recognizes that TikTok has become a popular and widely used platform across the country. She also believes that we must do more to protect Nevadans’ data from undue influence by the Chinese government and intrusion from foreign adversaries. She is reviewing the legislation passed by the House and other bipartisan proposals under discussion to address this issue,” said a spokesperson for Rosen.

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