University of Texas at Austin students split over campus WiFi TikTok ban

When Gov. Greg Abbott banned TikTok from state government employees’ devices in December 2022, public universities in Texas prepared for the inevitable restrictions coming for everyone else on campuses, where the app is enormously popular.

On Tuesday, January 17, University of Texas at Austin students received an email that their beloved, hated, time-wasting, life-fulfilling — depending on whom you ask — app had been blocked on campus WiFi. In part, the reasoning given echoed Abbott’s earlier statements.

“As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where, and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government,” wrote UT technology advisor Jeff Neyland.

The reaction on UT Austin’s dedicated Reddit page was particularly one-note: it was either students who hated the app and were glad it was gone, alumni who were glad it was gone, or lurker trolls who were glad it was gone.

So, on Thursday, January 19, I descended on UT’s campus to talk to students about how they really felt about TikTok being removed from their lives, at least while they are connected to UT WiFi.

“Honestly, I think it’s the right idea,” freshman Angela Gaona says, with a hint of trepidation. Gaona was frustrated when the ban first came down, but says she quickly got over it, mostly because it helped her realize just how much time she was spending glued to her phone.

She tells me that she’s a dedicated TikTok scroller and that most days, before the ban, she and her friends were sending TikToks back and forth to each other. Not so much anymore. I ask her how she fills the time now.

“There are other apps,” Gaona says, laughing. “Or maybe just turn on the homework.”

Her walking companion for the day, Julian Sanchez, agrees.

“It comes down to why you came to this school and what you want to do. Why are you here?” he says. “It’s just a better thing for anybody.”

Sanchez does acknowledge one irony of the ban, though, expressed recently through a meme he saw. Essentially, because of campus carry, students can carry firearms on campus but cannot connect to the WiFi and watch silly videos.

Students are split over the TikTok ban, with some ardent scrollers relieved and non-users opposed to the order.

Students are split over the TikTok ban, with some ardent scrollers relieved and non-users opposed to the order.

Chris O’Connell/MySA

Similarly, Trevor Tankersley, a linguistics and German senior, sees some irony in the ban, calling it, “a little bit frivolous.” I speak with him on the mall as he tables for Secular Student Alliance, an organization for which he serves as president.

A university employee who would have had to remove it from university devices were he a user of any social media — which he is not — Tankersley says he agrees with the ban on principle, and not just because he dislikes TikTok and the way in which people use it. He mentions the potential for spyware, and that the Chinese government can requisition information from the app whenever it wants.

His friend and Secular Student Alliance member Chris Coplyn points out that U.S. companies can requisition data from apps, and that some of the ideas about a communist China conspiracy to receive leaked data via TikTok are mostly hypothetical, conveyed as hard truths and spread as propaganda. Overall, he is not a fan of the TikTok ban, despite not using the app.

“It feels like it’s a target on one thing, when so many other apps on people’s phones will also be data leaks,” he says. The two have a spirited discussion about the ban and its implications before deciding that it won’t have much of an effect on student behavior. Off-campus students have their own WiFi and any campus-dwelling student who relies on TikTok as a way to generate income will be able to afford private WiFi.

Plus, Tankersley says, “if you want to use TikTok on university campus, you can literally just turn on your data, and it still works just fine.”

Lucero Ponce, a journalism student who lives on campus says that she uses TikTok less now because of the ban.

“It kind of sucks [having] to switch to my data now,” the sophomore says.

Ponce says she saw it coming, and that so far, it hasn’t impacted her work as a journalist. It was just a stress reliever and a way to pass the time. But since the ban, her usage has gone from regular, aimless scrolling to almost zero.

“Now I use it for, like, five minutes,” she says. “I dunno. Maybe it’s a good thing.”

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