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Will TikTok be banned in the US?

US lawmakers have renewed efforts to force Chinese company ByteDance to sell TikTok to a non-Chinese owner or face a total ban of the app in the US.

Stop sign
Stop sign

Members of the US Congress House of Representatives this week emphatically passed a bill that would force ByteDance, the Chinese owners of wildly popular short-video app TikTok, to sell TikTok or face a ban of the app in the US.

Supported by US President Joe Biden, who has said he will sign the bill into law should it also pass the Senate, this new effort to ban TikTok in the US represents the most significant threat to the app’s position in the US.

The renewed effort to ban TikTok comes as campaigning for the US presidential election in November heats up, and amidst an intensifying Cold War between the US and China over the control of valuable technologies from computer chips to AI.

US officials say TikTok’s Chinese ownership poses a major national security risk. They argue the Chinese government could force TikTok to relinquish data on private US citizens, including IP addresses leading to location data.

They also worry TikTok’s algorithm, which uses the same technology as its Chinese sister app Douyin, could be manipulated by the Chinese government to spread misinformation.

TikTok has dismissed these concerns as unfounded. It says that under a $1bn plan, US user data is held on servers managed by Oracle in the US, with any changes to the algorithm made by ByteDance that impact what users see are independently assessed before being implemented on TikTok.

How likely is it that ByteDance will be forced to sell TikTok?

Despite the intense noise surrounding the Congressional vote, any sale or ban of TikTok remains a long way off.

The TikTok bill passed by Congress this week must still pass the Senate, which requires a 60/40 super-majority. To date, it remains unclear whether the bill will even be put to a Senate vote.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Government, which has powers to prevent Chinese technologies like TikTok’s algorithm from being sold to non-Chinese companies, has indicated that it would prefer to see TikTok banned in the US than sold.

In the event a TikTok sale TikTok is blocked by China, the likelihood of the app disappearing from one day to the next in the US is remote.

Banning TikTok outright in the US would provoke uproar amongst the platform’s 170M US users and be immediately challenged in the courts by TikTok, a process that could last years.  

The result would be legal limbo, with some analysts questioning whether TikTok could still operate in the US.

What is behind the renewed push to ban TikTok in the US?

Former US President Donald Trump first tried to ban TikTok in 2020, but his executive order was thrown out in court for failing to follow due process.

Current US President Joe Biden has long been mistrustful of China’s intentions, but has taken a more considered approach to date. His administration launched its own investigation into TikTok and last year reportedly demanded TikTok be divested or face a ban.

TikTok’s efforts in recent years to convince US officials it does not pose a risk to national security have been seriously undermined by revelations that:

  1. TikTok employees used the app to spy on journalists and their locations in an effort to identify the source of leaked information.
  2. The app has a ‘Heating’ feature which allows TikTok employees to manually boost content in the algorithm.
  3. A string of high-level executives from ByteDance China transferring to top jobs at TikTok.

Representatives from both sides of politics in the US are behind the latest push to force a sale or ban of TikTok. This week’s Congressional vote follows months of work by lawmakers, and was passed by a 352 to 65 vote.

TikTok has already been banned on US federal government devices, a majority of states’ government devices, and on several university campuses in the US.  TikTok has also been banned from government devices in several countries, including Australia, the UK and Canada.

Meanwhile the top three EU bodies — European Commission, the European Parliament and the EU Council — have also banned TikTok from official work phones over security concerns.  

TikTok has met with European Union officials to discuss its plans to comply with the new Digital Safety Act and Digital Markets Act which recently came into force. It has assured the EU that it tightened protocols in the wake of the journalist spying incident, and has similar plans to Project Texas that would see it establish a data center in Ireland to reduce the flow of data out of the EU.

Since then, however, the European Commission has launched a formal investigation into TikTok over whether it complies with obligations under the DSA in relation to the negative effects of its algorithm and its ability to encourage addictive user behavior.

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