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When some students return to their college campuses after the holidays, they may find themselves unable to log in to their favorite app.
The University of Oklahoma and Auburn University in Alabama announced this month that they would ban access to TikTok from campus Wi-Fi, in accordance with their respective governors’ executive orders to restrict the app on state-owned devices and networks.
But a handful of students at the affected universities who spoke with NBC News say the newly enacted policies won’t stop them from scrolling their For You pages. Many called the ban unnecessary.
“You’re taking something away from students who have nothing to do with the government or government technology for the state of Alabama,” said Christopher Graham, a junior at Auburn University.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey banned TikTok on state-owned devices and networks on Dec. 12, citing cybersecurity issues and fears over Chinese spying. Meanwhile, states like Maryland banned the app and other Chinese and Russian products Dec. 6 after an investigation by NBC News revealed that a state-sponsored hacking group stole millions in unemployment money from the U.S.
Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Virginia also have implemented similar bans in the past month. Nebraska banned the app for government officials in 2020. Lawmakers in the U.S. House and the Senate also proposed a bipartisan bill to ban TikTok federally on Dec. 13.
On Tuesday, NBC News reported that lawmakers and staffers were instructed in a memo from Catherine L. Szpindor, the chief administrative officer of the House, that they must delete TikTok from any House-issued mobile phones and are prohibited from downloading the popular app on such devices. The memo said the ban comes after the office’s cybersecurity unit found TikTok to be a “high risk to users due to a number of security risks.”
While Graham said he understands that Auburn’s policy stems from Ivey’s mandate, it isn’t clear to him how students’ data was as sensitive or in need of protection as that of state officials.
“We were in awe and shock,” Graham said of the university’s decision. “TikTok is, like, something we do to, like, pass the time, because there’s not always something to do on campus or not always something to do with your friends. So it was really awkward when now we log on to our Wi-Fi and boom, you can’t get on TikTok.”
TikTok is, like, something we do to, like, pass the time … so it was really awkward when now we log on to our Wi-Fi and boom, you can’t get on TikTok.
— Christopher Graham, a junior at Auburn University
A spokesperson for Auburn University clarified that students weren’t barred from using TikTok altogether, only that they wouldn’t be able to access it on Auburn’s networks or devices.
“Efforts are underway to remove TikTok from all state-owned devices provided by Auburn,” the university wrote in a message sent to its campus community, which a spokesperson shared with NBC News. “Note also that the new policy recommends removing TikTok from personal devices to protect a person’s privacy there as well. The governor’s order addresses the growing risk of intrusive social media applications harvesting data totally unrelated to business use of the platform.”
Some at the University of Oklahoma echoed concerns similar to Graham’s.
Oklahoma state officials seem to be focusing more on “hot button, minute issues, like social media apps, instead of actually caring for our vulnerable populations here in Oklahoma,” said Ryan Woods, a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma. “And we just kind of feel like the focus needs to be redirected elsewhere.”
For example, he said, education and health care are policy areas in which the state could improve.
On Dec. 8, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order banning “state government agencies, employees and contractors on government networks or government-issued devices, including state-issued cell phones, computers, or any other device capable of internet connectivity,” from accessing TikTok.
Nathan Aaron Texada, a senior at the University of Oklahoma studying industrial and systems engineering, said the ban specifically hurts the Gallogly College of Engineering.
“We have an engineering TikTok that we go on just to make, like, lighthearted jokes about what it is to be an engineer,” Texada said. “People can send those incoming students, or just high school students, and now we can’t have that.”
As of last week, the department’s account had been deleted.
A University of Oklahoma spokesperson said the school is complying with Stitt’s executive order.
“As a result of the Executive Order, access to the TikTok platform will be blocked and cannot be accessed from the campus network. University-administered TikTok accounts must be deleted and alternate social media platforms utilized in their place,” the school said in a message to students and employees, which it shared with NBC News.
Texada said he felt that TikTok, beyond helping with marketing, has also been a resource for the university community, particularly international students.
“Some of them don’t have phone bills,” Texada said. “They rely on the Wi-Fi to do everything. They’ll communicate on WhatsApp and other social medias, and so if they don’t have a phone, they don’t have data, they can’t use TikTok at all, because they’re relying on [university] Wi-Fi.”
A spokesperson for TikTok said it is “disappointed” by the recent bans by state governments and now some universities.
“We’re disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon to enact policies that will do nothing to advance cybersecurity in their states and are based on unfounded falsehoods about TikTok,” spokesperson Brook Oberwetter said in an email statement. “We’re especially sorry to see the unintended consequences of these rushed policies beginning to impact universities’ ability to share campus-wide information, recruit students, and build communities around athletic teams, student groups, campus publications, and more.”
Still, Texada, Woods and Graham said they believe the new guidance at their schools will have minimal impacts on students who use the app.
They listed several ways students could get around the ban, including using their data or virtual private networks, tools that encrypt internet activity, and going off-campus to use different network connections.
“If anything, it’ll kind of just end up being an irritating factor for a lot of students, like those who live on campus and who are in the dorms,” Woods said.
Daysia Tolentino is a culture and trends reporter for NBC News.
Kalhan Rosenblatt is a reporter covering youth and internet culture for NBC News, based in New York.
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Students question TikTok bans at public universities – NBC News