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Stop the scroll: Pressure builds to ban TikTok on Florida campuses

Alex Dickinson (left) and Jesus Garcia (right) use their phones in Turlington Plaza at the University of Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. Garcia has had a TikTok account for about a year. He says he doesnÕt see TikTok as a problem, but would follow the rules if the university asked students to stop using it. (Lauren Whiddon/Fresh Take Florida) TikTok usage
Alex Dickinson (left) and Jesus Garcia (right) use their phones in Turlington Plaza at the University of Florida on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. Garcia has had a TikTok account for about a year. He says he doesnÕt see TikTok as a problem, but would follow the rules if the university asked students to stop using it. (Lauren Whiddon/Fresh Take Florida) TikTok usage

Is TikTok dead for Florida college students?

The University of Florida is warning there is a “strong possibility” it will ban TikTok from its wired and wireless computer networks on campus. That would effectively block access to the popular social media platform for students and faculty in dormitories, classrooms, lecture halls, cafeterias and sporting events – even walking across the school’s grounds.

This week, Florida’s flagship public university went a step further, saying it will also ban all future academic research that uses TikTok, an occasional cultural touchstone that boasts more than 1 billion monthly active users in 150 countries. 

Some UF students said they have no plans to give up TikTok. “I use it so much to keep up with trends and know what’s going on in the world,” Adyson Harvey, 22, of Lutz, Florida, a graduate student studying social media.

Florida’s chief financial officer, a member of the Cabinet in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration, urged every college and university across Florida to ban TikTok. 

“Zero value,” Jimmy Patronis wrote on Twitter this week. “Threatens security. It’s a tool of the Chinese-Communist state. No good reason to allow it. Basically makes our children dumber, too. Ban it.”

The university and the Gators’ athletic teams said they immediately stopped publishing new content to their branded TikTok accounts with more than 435,000 followers collectively. 

So far, other public colleges and universities across Florida haven’t followed suit, but officials there expressed concerns about TikTok and acknowledged they are considering similar directives. It wasn’t clear whether DeSantis or the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature – which have been critical of TikTok and social media platforms – would force the issue.

Citing digital privacy concerns about TikTok’s corporate proximity to China’s government, UF announced last week it was “strongly discouraging” continued use of TikTok and recommended all students and faculty delete the app from their devices. In the U.S., the service is operated by TikTok Inc. of Culver City, California, whose parent company is China-based ByteDance.

“Taking this action will help protect your personal information as well as university data,” the school said in a statement.

Harvey, the UF student, said she understood UF’s privacy concerns, but they weren’t enough to convince her to delete TikTok. She said she uses it more than any other service on her phone.

Another student, Alex Dickinson, 19, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said he was familiar with concerns that TikTok may be harvesting his personal information but also had no plans to delete it. Dickinson, a sophomore studying finance, said he lives off campus, mitigating any move by UF to block use of the service over its campus networks.

UF’s message from its chief information officer, Elias G. Eldayrie, did not indicate whether the university had done any of its own research or analysis about the prospective digital threats it described. It also did not mention rival social media services with famously loose privacy policies that routinely sell personal information about consumers to advertisers, marketers and others.

In its message, UF cited concerns about academic and financial records, research and other personal information it is required by federal law to protect. Subsequent messages to faculty from university leaders like vice president of research David Norton described the additional ban on any future research requiring users or researchers to use the app. Researchers were instructed to focus on other social media services.

“The application poses a security risk that could impact sensitive and protected data. This decision, made by the UF Research office, is aimed at mitigating that risk,” Norton said in an email.

In a statement, a TikTok spokesman did not address UF's possible restrictions or security concerns. It said a pending review in Washington of the company's request with a federal panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, to operate the service in the U.S. "will address all national security concerns about TikTok so that our community can feel confident in their safety, privacy and security as they continue to grow and share on our platform."

The company employs at least 10 registered lobbyists to advance its interests in Florida, including seven at the law and lobbying firm Metz Husband & Daughton in Tallahassee and three who work directly for TikTok in California, according to state lobbying records. Metz Husband & Daughton declined to comment on UF’s actions toward TikTok, and the three lobbyists who work directly for TikTok also did not respond to phone messages or emails.

Another UF student, Jess Weber, 21, of Miami, said they once deleted TikTok during the pandemic because they found it so addicting. Weber reinstalled TikTok and now uses it only during spare time outside classes.

“There are other things on campus to be more angry about,” said Weber, an anthropology major. “Pick your battles.” 

TikTok is already banned on state government devices in more than 20 states – but not Florida – including North Carolina and Wisconsin, which announced bans last week. Other prominent universities, including Auburn and Oklahoma, also have bans in place. The University of Texas at Austin announced earlier this week it banned TikTok from its computer networks.

TikTok is expected to be banned on all federal government devices within the next two months, following approval of the proposal by Congress and the White House.

There is no realistic mechanism for any U.S. or state government agency to compel consumers to remove a social media app or block its use on their privately owned devices. That's why existing bans have focused on TikTok on government-owned devices or pressuring Apple and Google to remove the app from their digital storefronts. UF doesn't provide most faculty or employees with cell phones – except that UF will provide former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., its incoming president, with a cell phone and a monthly service allowance under his $1 million per year employment contract.

Even if UF were to ban TikTok from its campus networks, students could disconnect from the university's WiFi service and connect to TikTok over their cellular service or use personal internet accounts off campus. Depending on how UF were to implement such a ban, students might be able to hide their TikTok habits on campus using virtual private networks to keep their personal browsing activities hidden.

The email discouraging TikTok use might be confusing to students who grew up using social media, said UF professor Andrew Selepak, who teaches courses on social media.

“They don’t understand how that data can be used against them,” Selepak said. “They don’t necessarily have a full grasp of what that means because it’s so ingrained in their every day.”

Florida’s senior U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, and the university’s new incoming president, Sasse, have been vocal critics of Chinese espionage efforts and have pushed to ban TikTok among federal government employees. A university spokeswoman, Cynthia Roldan, said Sasse was not involved in UF’s decision. His first day on campus as president is next month.

Sasse is a self-proclaimed “China hawk” who has criticized TikTok as a spy tool of the Chinese Community Party and a “cybersecurity nightmare.” Sasse also was a member of the U.S. Senate intelligence committee before resigning from Congress earlier this month.

“When it comes to the Chinese Community Party, data security is as fake as Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy,” Sasse said last year. 

UF has only so far banned two pieces of software from its network: the scheduling service Calendly over a failure to reach a user agreement with UF’s lawyers, and the e-writing tablet Remarkable over concerns that its use by UF medical students might violate patient confidentiality.

Other colleges and universities said they were watching UF’s moves against TikTok.

Florida State University was looking into the issue, spokesman Dennis Schnittker said.

“We are aware of the issues and concerns surrounding TikTok and the matter is under consideration,” Schnittker said. “We have not issued any guidance to the campus community concerning the use of TikTok.”

A University of South Florida spokesperson said the university hadn’t made a decision on similar TikTok guidance. Both the University of West Florida and University of North Florida are closely monitoring TikTok security developments but haven’t issued a recommendation or ban yet, officials at the schools said.

Florida International University and the University of Central Florida haven’t made any public announcements regarding TikTok.


This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at semineram @freshtakeflorida.com . You can donate to support our students here .

Makiya is a reporter for Fresh Take Florida who can be reached by emailing semineram@freshtakeflorida.com.