How many colleges and universities are blocking TikTok?

How might rising US-China tensions impact higher education?

This month we’re seeing developments on one small aspect of that larger question.  Interest in blocking hit video app TikTok has been cropping up in the United States.  Fifteen states now prohibit state staff from using the app, by the New York Times’ count.  At least one national bill is before Congress. Now such bans have started to appear in higher education, in at least four states.

While each academic instance I’ve found follows the same general idea, different institutions and states offer some differences in details. For example, we can start with Alabama.  After that state’s governor banned public officials from using TikTok, Auburn University is complying.

On Wednesday, Seth Humphrey, an IT manager of service delivery at Auburn University, sent a notice that TikTok users would not be able to access the app on university WiFi or on-campus housing.

The university last posted to TikTok on its official account on Dec. 2.

Rebecca Griesbach adds: “It’s not clear what the memo might mean for popular university, athletics and influencer accounts across the state.”

Now, the Auburn IT link in that article leads to a very quiet and small note, as of this writing.  Rather than stating a ban, it reads: “Auburn is monitoring the developments related to accessing TikTok and will provide information as we receive it. Check back later for more information.” Did campus IT pull the original content?  I can’t find any other notices about the app on their site.

TikTok in a person's hand on table_by Nordskovmedia

Elsewhere, Georgia’s public universities have echoed their governor’s TikTok block.  It’s a little different from Alabama, in that the state can’t legally order its campuses to do such a thing, but the academic system’s leadership decided to follow suit.

There are some nuances.  The ban addresses hardware, “banning the use of TikTok, WeChat and Telegram on computers and phones owned by the system or any of its 26 universities and colleges.”  Yet there are two exceptions: “Chancellor Sonny Perdue said in a memo that state-owned devices can only be used to access the programs for law enforcement and security purposes.”  And there’s a specific shape to policy for academics using their own hardware:

students, faculty and staff could still access the sites on their own computers and phones, or those owned by university-related foundations, as long as employees don’t also use those devices to access personal information or sensitive information related to university business.

Idaho is doing something similar, but with its own details. There the policy focuses on networks, not hardware: “Officials at Boise State University and Idaho State University in recent days informed students and faculty that the colleges are required to block access to the app on campus Wi-Fi networks.” When it comes to personal devices, students can use TikTok, but only on cell connections.

Meanwhile, Texas has decided that its TikTok ban now includes public university faculty and staff.  Samantha Ketterer reminds us that “In Texas, the ban disallows state officers and employees from downloading or using TikTok on government-issued devices, including cell phones, laptops, tablets, desktop computers, and other devices capable of connecting to the internet.”  Then she makes the higher ed connection:

Public university employees are included under the order, meaning professors who create viral instructional TikTok posts, sports programs and admissions offices will no longer be able to use the platform.

And:

universities such as UH, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin will no longer be able to use the social media platform to reach sports fans and prospective students.

Ketterer then gives us examples of Texan campuses already taking steps.  The University of Houston:

The UH System emailed student, faculty and staff employees about the ban on Dec. 9 and has since scanned 15,000 devices across its four universities, said Shawn Lindsey, associate vice chancellor of media relations. It found only six devices with the app installed, which was then removed.

(Only six?  That doesn’t sound right.)

Others didn’t remove the app directly, but told users to do so themselves:

UT-Austin also issued a directive to its employees on Friday, informing them to immediately remove TikTok from state-issued devices.

Texas A&M University similarly sent a notice to its employees Monday, ordering them to remove TikTok from university-owned devices, stop posting to TikTok on university accounts and remove links to TikTok from university webpages.

Yet: “A&M’s Technology Services department is also working to block and remove the app from certain devices and ensure compliance, according to the email.”

This is by no means a total ban. It seems that people are free to access TikTok through campus networks if they use their own machines:

For now, students and employees on/ college campuses can still access TikTok on their personal devices. It’s unclear whether that will change – universities are awaiting guidance from the state next month about how to regulate the use of TikTok on state employees’ personal devices.

At least one colleague has forwarded me emails from another Texan academic institution. The policy there bans staff from using TikTok on institutional devices, and also prohibits them from accessing the app on personal devices through campus networks.

I have several questions:

  1. How many other states will adopt similar measures, then apply them to public higher ed?
  2. How will private colleges and universities respond?
  3. Will any academic institutions contest these restrictions in court?
  4. Would a federal law, should one appear, directly impact campuses, or will such a bill encourage schools to follow suit on their own?
  5. How will campus IT enforce such policies? Already we see several different methods in Texas and Alabama.
  6. What will happen to academic TikTok content?  I imagine some will want to migrate videos to other platforms, notably YouTube or Vimeo.
  7. Will there be any pushbacks, students protesting that they want their app back? Or holding TikTok viewing sections on personal devices hooked up to ethernet ports?
  8. How many other colleges and universities have already implemented such a ban?
  9. How will this impact Chinese students in the United States?  Will such bans add fuel to anti-Asian hate?

Note, too, that this comes after years of rising academic interest in TikTok, from student recruitment to class content and athletic videos. (Here’s one recent article on the point.)

As this is a rapidly developing story, I can add to this post as new information appears. Please feel free to share your own experience and thoughts in comments.

If you’re interested in the broader topic of China-US tensions and higher ed, I’ve been writing about this for a while.

(thanks to Tom Haymes and Ruben Puentedura; photo by Nordskov Media)

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3 Responses to How many colleges and universities are blocking TikTok?

  1. Mark Rush says:

    not sure how to react to this because I have no real sense of how much of a security risk Tiktok poses. But, if the country believes that Russia could mess with our elections and believes that Tiktok poses some sort of threat, I don’t see a real problem with this–anymore than, say other government mandates.

    Many friends have two phones or two machines–one for work and one for personal use. Seems that a Tiktok ban on state issued stuff would simply move Tiktok to the personal devices.

    SO, what am I missing?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Those two points – regulation for security purposes and using two devices – strike me as correct.
      I’d tweak the latter to note that some policies ban TikTok access not just on devices but networks. So interested users can switch from WiFi to cell phone signals.

      What to add:
      -TikTok is *huge*, on course to be the most widely used social media entity in the US. So this might be a big pain for a bunch of academics, notably students.
      -Such regs will tamp down on academics who’ve been posting content to TikTok. Worst case we lost some academic content.
      -It’s another ratchet in worsening US-China relations, which has academic implications, as I’ve noted.

  2. Pingback: OTR Links 12/23/2022 – doug — off the record

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