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The U.S. TikTok Ban: What Does It Mean? 

What is the Bill?

On 13 March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act. This would force TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance to either sell the hugely popular social media platform or face a total ban in the U.S, and gives ByteDance 165 days to sell TikTok. If it does not, app stores will be banned from hosting TikTok or providing web hosting services to Byte-Dance controlled applications.  


The vote was a landslide, passing 352 to 65. With this sort of widespread bipartisan support, it is clear that TikTok is facing its biggest existential threat in the U.S. yet. 


Why does the U.S. government want to ban TikTok? 

The app has been under threat since 2020, as U.S. lawmakers and regulators increasingly expressed concern that TikTok and its Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, may raise national security risks. They worry that TikTok may put the sensitive user data of its 170 million U.S. users into the hands of the Chinese government. They point to Chinese laws that allow the government to secretly demand data from Chinese companies and individuals for intelligence gathering operations. High-profile cases, including an incident where ByteDance accessed a journalist’s data to track down their sources, have stoked concerns. 


Concern among lawmakers has progressively risen, with many worrying that TikTok’s algorithm could be used to spread misinformation, a concern that has escalated after the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October. Many worry that TikTok’s content suggestions have promoted antisemitism and pro-Palestinian content to American users. Many believe that the app also censors content that goes against the Chinese government.  


Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who co-authored the bill, said the U.S. could not “take the risk of having a dominant news platform in America controlled or owned by a company that is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” 


Gallagher says that U.S. government national security assessments detect that TikTok is a legitimate threat to US data and privacy. They also prove that the app has been used to target journalists and influence elections. Additionally, FBI Director Christian Wray has voiced his concerns about the app, claiming that the Chinese Government could theoretically use the app to control software on users’ devices. “We're not sure that we would see many of the outward signs of it happening if it was happening,” Wray said.  


Despite this evidence, officials have not released proof to the public that the Chinese government is raking users’ data and surveilling U.S. users, though experts say it could be possible.  


How has TikTok responded? 

TikTok has denied assertions that it can be exploited by the CCP, and has said it has never and will not give U.S. user data to the government.  


TikTok has stated that its U.S. user data is not held in China. Rather, it is held in Singapore and the U.S., where it is managed by Oracle, an American tech company. These steps were taken as a part of ‘Project Texas,’ TikTok’s one billion USD plan to handle U.S. data separately from the rest of the company’s operations in China.  


These assertions were not enough for many U.S. lawmakers. In early March 2023, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, was called before Congress, where he was questioned about TikTok’s data practices. Lawmakers asked Chew about his nationality, repeating concerns that he is Chinese. He is, in fact, Singaporean.  


Chew said that the company was committed to keeping its data secure and the platform “free from outside manipulation.” TikTok has claimed that the U.S. is using “bullying behaviour,” with the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson saying, “Although the U.S. has never found evidence that TikTok threatens U.S. national security, it has not stopped suppressing TikTok.” 


TikTok has vocally opposed the legislation, saying, “we are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents, and realise the impact on the economy,  seven million small businesses, and the 170 million Americans who use our service.” 

TikTok has even utilised its users to protest the ban. In March, TikTok users got pop-up notifications asking them to call their local representatives, and push notifications saying “Help stop the TikTok shutdown.” Some Capitol Hill offices have said they have received dozens of calls since. 

 

Opponents of the ban 

While the Bill has gained unusually broad bipartisan support, it has also divided both parties. Several Democrats and Republicans have expressed concerns about the ban based on free speech concerns. Many believe that the legislation is an infringement on First Amendment rights. Freedom of speech and civil rights advocacy groups, such as American Civil Liberties Union have strongly opposed the ban. The ACLU called it, “censorship plain and simple,” and has argued that “jeopardising access to the platform jeopardises access to free expression.” Representative Maxwell Frost, a Democrat of Florida, said, “I hear from students all the time that get their information, the truth of what has happened in this country, from content creators on TikTok.”  


Additionally, former President Trump, who previously tried to ban TikTok or force its sale in 2020, has since publicly reversed his position on the app. Trump has said that the app is a national security threat, but stated that “the thing I don't like is that without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger, and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people along with a lot of the media.” 


Others have expressed concerns over the bill due to worries about how it will affect younger people. Trump has said “there are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it.” Additionally, some democrats are worried about the bill, fearing it could drive away the app’s generally young user base and cause democrats to lose the favour of young voters.  


Finally, many worry about how the TikTok ban will affect those who are reliant on the app for their livelihoods. Paul Tran and his wife own a small skin care company called Love and Pebble. They protested at a pro-TikTok rally outside the capital saying, "You will be destroying small businesses like us; this is our livelihood. We’ve created success." He said their small business nearly shut down last year until TikTok opened their ‘TikTok Shop.’ Now, they get 90% of their business from the app. Additionally, activists like Tiffany Yu from Los Angeles, who posts videos to raise awareness about disabilities, said that the platform was crucial to her work. While she said, “fifteen years ago, I only dreamed of reaching 30 to 40 people." Now, she has millions. 


What happens next? 

While President Biden has confirmed that he will sign the bill if it gets to his desk, the Bill still has to pass a Senate vote. While the Bill passed quickly in the House, it faces a less certain future in the Senate and there appears less urgency to act. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the Majority Leader, has been unenthusiastic about bringing the bill to the floor. Additionally, there is little unanimity on the decision, and, while the House may not be split on party lines, there is still debate on how best to handle the bill.  


It is unclear when the Senate vote will happen, however, TikTok is likely to increase its protest efforts as the bill moves forward. Even if the vote passes in the Senate, it is likely to face legal challenges. Some legal experts have estimated that if the bill were to become law, it would still face First Amendment claims in the courts, as Trump’s attempt in 2020 did.  


While this may be the biggest legal challenge TikTok has faced in the U.S. to date, it is clear that a TikTok ban won’t be happening anytime soon.  


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