Why has the US passed a bill to ban TikTok, and what’s next?

The US House of Representatives has approved a bill that could force the app’s Chinese owner ByteDance to divest from the company — or face a ban.

US flag and TikTok logo are seen in this illustration taken, June 2, 2023
Many US legislators and the White House believe that the sale of TikTok to a 'qualified buyer' – likely a Western company –  would cut off Chinese influence [Illustration: Dado Ruvic/Reuters]

The US moved a step closer to banning TikTok after the House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday calling for the app’s Chinese developer ByteDance to divest from the company or be booted out of US app stores.

The Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, receiving 352 votes in favour, and only 65 against.

Many House legislators have argued that the app could allow the Chinese government to access user data and influence Americans through the wildly popular social media platform’s addictive algorithm. The White House has backed the bill, with President Joe Biden saying he would sign it if it passes Congress.

Legislators and the White House, however, are at odds with many of TikTok’s 170 million US users – representing roughly half the country – as well as civil liberties and digital rights groups who say a ban would infringe on freedom of speech.

In the meantime, the bill still faces hurdles including clearing the US Senate, the upper chamber of the US legislature, where the path forward is far from straight. The bill will face a new round of scrutiny from legislators on both sides of the aisle and potential competition from different versions of a ban.

Why does the US want ByteDance to divest from TikTok?

The battle over TikTok is the latest front in US-China competition and Washington’s attempts to thwart potential foreign influence campaigns. In the case of TikTok, US legislators fear that ByteDance could be secretly controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.

The company has denied the allegations that it shares sensitive user data with the Chinese government. “ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. It is a private company,” TikTok CEO Shou Chew said in a testimony before the Congress in March.

But Chinese regulators have a history of cracking down on domestic tech firms. Beijing is also well-known for censoring politically sensitive content and restricting users from accessing Western social media and sites with its “Great Firewall”.

Marco Rubio, the Republican vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, expressed many of these fears this week when he said at an annual hearing on “worldwide threat assessments” that “every company in China is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party” – including ByteDance.

TikTok supporters in front of the Capitol Hill
Supporters of TikTok gather at the Capitol in Washington before the House passed the bill that seeks to ban the popular video app [J Scott Applewhite/AP Photo]

“They happen to control a company that owns one of the world’s best artificial intelligence algorithms. It’s the one that’s used in this country by TikTok, and it uses the data of Americans to basically read your mind and predict what videos you want to see,” he said.

Many US legislators and the White House believe that the sale of TikTok to a “qualified buyer” – likely a Western company –  would cut off Chinese influence.

The bill, however, does not stop there but opens up the same provisions for other “foreign adversary controlled” apps or “the operation of a content recommendation algorithm or an agreement with respect to data sharing”.

This could include other popular Chinese apps for apparel companies Temu and Shein, following in the footsteps of other apps like Grindr. In 2020, the Chinese owner of the popular gay dating app was forced to sell for $600m over national security concerns that app data could be used to blackmail Americans.

What does TikTok say?

TikTok has denied the charges levelled against it, although it hasn’t been very effective in convincing US legislators.

CEO Chew’s testimony before Congress last year was widely perceived to be “disastrous”, as he failed to assuage concerns about Chinese influence over the app.

The Chinese government owns 1 percent stake in ByteDance and controls one of three board members in the Beijing-based company.

Critics, though, say the hearing was unsuccessful in part due to grandstanding by legislators. One notable incident saw Chew, a Singaporean and military reservist, grilled on whether he supports the Chinese Communist Party in scenes reminiscent of the US “Red Scare” of the 1950s.

Will the bill become law?

US President Joe Biden has said he would support a TikTok divestment bill, although there is a rival version from Senate Democrats that is currently stuck in committee.

The Senate’s RESTRICT Act empowers the Department of Commerce to act directly to ban apps controlled by “foreign adversaries”, whereas the House “Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act” starts at the White House.

While the House version has pulled ahead for the moment, it still has to be approved by the Senate and then signed by President Biden before it can become law.

The US House of Representatives passes bill that could ban TikTok
The floor of the US House of Representatives is pictured after the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would give TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance about six months to divest the US assets of the short-video app or face a ban [House TV via Reuters]

This would be a challenging task in ordinary times, but 2024 is also an election year in the US when the presidency, the entire House of Representatives, and 34 of 100 Senate seats are up for grabs. It’s possible that progress may be delayed until after the November vote. ByteDance can also challenge any ban in US courts.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, released a short statement after the passage of the bill in the House, saying that the Senate “will review the legislation when it comes over from the House”.

But support and opposition to the bill do not fall along straight party lines.

While a TikTok ban is supported by ranking Republican senators like Rubio, Senator Rand Paul, another Republican, has promised to block the bill, which he considers unconstitutional.

Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican from the conservative state of North Dakota, also told US reporters not to hold their breath as the bill moves through the Senate.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that it’ll be real fast. We don’t do things fast. We’re designed not to do things fast, so I would think months,” he was quoted as saying by the US news broadcaster CBS News.

Former US President Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, has also changed his position on TikTok. His administration tried to ban the app in 2020, but switching sides four years later could earn him votes with younger voters in November.

The US federal government and several states have separately taken the initiative to restrict the use of TikTok. Montana last year became the first US state to ban the app outright, although a legal challenge is under way.

If the bill passes, will TikTok be banned in the US?

The House version of the bill does not explicitly ban TikTok outright and gives ByteDance six months to divest its ownership, but some observers say this is a de facto ban as Beijing is unlikely to approve the sale of TikTok to a Western or US-friendly company.

“I do agree with TikTok that a law forcing divestment or ban likely means a ban, as PRC [People’s Republic of China] policymakers are not likely to approve a forced divestment,” the China watcher Bill Bishop said in his Sinocism newsletter this week.

“One reason that PRC policymakers may say no to any divestment of TikTok is that TikTok is the first global Internet platform from China. The government for years has talked about the need to increase its share of international discourse power about telling China story well, yet the global efforts to do that have primarily relied on US platforms like YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter,” he wrote. “TikTok helps break that distribution stranglehold.”

Beijing appears unwilling to buckle, saying Thursday that it would “take all necessary measures” to protect the interests of Chinese companies operating overseas.

“The US should truly respect the principles of a market economy and fair competition,” Chinese Ministry of Commerce spokesman He Yadong said at a news conference, calling for Washington to “stop unjustly suppressing foreign companies”.

“China will take all necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests,” he said.

Is there reason to worry about TikTok?

The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab carried out a lengthy analysis of TikTok and its Chinese sister Douyin in 2021 and said the evidence is “inconclusive about whether TikTok employs political censorship of user posts” and that neither Douyin nor TikTok “appear to exhibit overtly malicious behaviour similar to those exhibited by malware”.

Author Pellaeon Lin said Douyin and TikTok also appeared to share the same source code that was later customised for each market, as well as restrictions for content labelled, “hate speech”, “suicide prevention” and “sensitive”, with some political keywords restricted on Douyin but not on TikTok.

“We observed that some of these customisations can be turned on or off by different server-returned configuration values. We are concerned but could not confirm that this capability may be used to turn on privacy-violating hidden features,” Lin said.

TikTok’s addictive nature has also raised concerns over its potential negative influence on children. But critics of a ban say that the same can be said about other social media platforms such as Instagram.

Who opposes the TikTok ban?

The bill is opposed by many TikTok users, particularly content creators who have been able to monetise their videos into making several hundred to thousands of US dollars each month.

It’s also been scrutinised by civil and digital rights groups in the US like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Banning TikTok, directly or indirectly, would violate the First Amendment because it would stifle free expression and restrict the public’s access to a critical source of information. The government can’t impose this type of total ban unless it’s the only way to prevent extremely serious and immediate harm to national security,” Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, told Al Jazeera.

“There’s no public evidence of that type of harm. And even if there were, a total ban on TikTok wouldn’t be the only answer,” she said.

Unlike the European Union, the US still does not have a unified federal data privacy law, something Gorski said would address many of the concerns around protecting US user data.

Other observers have noted that TikTok operates much like X, the app formerly known as Twitter, and the Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram.

While not exactly a high bar given that the EU fined Meta $1.3bn last year for violating privacy laws, they say banning TikTok alone would be hypocritical when all of these companies are carrying out questionable policies.

Have other countries banned or restricted access to TikTok?

TikTok is under a microscope beyond the US. Nepal and India have both banned TikTok. In India’s case, the ban is motivated by New Delhi’s ongoing geopolitical tensions with Beijing.

Many governments including Afghanistan, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Taiwan, the UK and EU governance bodies have all banned the app from government phones. Pakistan and Indonesia have also gone back and forth on whether — and how much — to restrict access to TikTok.

The EU, which has a track record of reigning in the tech giants of Silicon Valley over alleged overreach, could prove TikTok’s next big test. In February, the EU opened a formal investigation into TikTok, but it will focus more on content, advertising, and the addictive app’s impact on minors.

The company has already been fined $370m by the EU for privacy violations.

Source: Al Jazeera