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TikTok ban expected to become law, but it's not so simple. What's next?

A bill that could ban TikTok nationwide unless it divests from its China-based parent company, ByteDance, is on the fast track to becoming law.
Damian Dovarganes
A bill that could ban TikTok nationwide unless it divests from its China-based parent company, ByteDance, is on the fast track to becoming law.

Legislation forcing TikTok to be sold, or face a nationwide ban, is moving rapidly through Congress and is expected to become law this week.

Nobody anticipates that the app will disappear any time soon, but the measure has set off alarms inside TikTok, which is, yet again, preparing to go to court to fight for its existence in the U.S.

What happened?

On Saturday, the House passed a measure giving ByteDance, TikTok's China- based owner, up to a year to divest from the hit video-sharing app or be put out of business in the U.S.

Since it was added to an aid package providing support for Israel and Ukraine, it passed overwhelmingly. It is expected to be approved by the Senate on Tuesday. President Biden has signaled that he will sign it.

It will mark the first time ever Congress has passed legislation aimed at shutting down a social media platform, something U.S. government officials have long criticized other nations for doing.

Lawmakers from both parties say TikTok is a national security risk, fearing Chinese government officials could ask the app for data on millions of Americans, or push the service to amplify disinformation ahead of the November election.

TikTok has long said the Chinese government has never asked for Americans' data, and if it were asked, the company says it would refuse to comply. But under Chinese national intelligence laws, TikTok would be legally bound to hand over information on American users of the app.

Critics of the legislation argue TikTok is being unfairly caught up in the geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, pointing out that China has already amassed digital dossiers on Americans through suspected hacking operations, leaving little need for data on how millions of Americans are watching videos on TikTok.

What happens when Biden signs the bill?

An immediate legal battle.

NPR has confirmed that TikTok is readying a federal lawsuit seeking to block the law.

The company is planning to allege that curbing the speech of the 170 million Americans who use the platform is a First Amendment violation.

Experts say allowing the government to limit speech requires clearing a very tall legal hurdle, but one way to do so is by proving the speech restriction was enacted in the name of national security, which has long been the justification for cracking down on TikTok.

Yet lawmakers have not offered any public evidence showing that the Chinese government has ever weaponized TikTok against Americans.

TikTok has a history of court wins

Previous attempts to shutter TikTok in the U.S. have not been successful.

Three separate federal district judges have blocked efforts to ban TikTok — two courts during the Trump administration, and one more recently in Montana.

U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone in Philadelphia found in 2020 that TikTok's national security threat is "phrased in the hypothetical."

In late 2023, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula said that a crusade by officials in Montana to block TikTok within the state's borders had a "pervasive undertone of anti-Chinese sentiment."

Who would buy TikTok?

Since the app is one of the largest and most valuable social media platforms in the world, analysts estimate that it could likely cost more than $100 billion.

That means only the biggest technology companies, like Meta, Microsoft, Google and Amazon, would be able to afford to purchase the app, though the Biden administration's anti-trust enforcers would likely challenge such an acquisition.

Other possible suiters include former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has said he's putting together a group of investors to try to buy TikTok.

But any deal would require a blessing from the Chinese government, which, in 2020, placed "content-recommendation algorithms" on the country's export control list.

That means that TikTok's much-coveted algorithm could only be sold with the approval of Beijing, and the Chinese government has indicated it would not approve the forced sale of TikTok's technology. Buying TikTok without its algorithm would be like purchasing ColaCola without its secret recipe. It would represent "an empty deal."

Meta and Google would be the winners of a TikTok ban

While there are many technical obstacles to enforcing the ban of a social media app, and ways to circumvent such a restriction, the legislation would make it illegal for web-hosting companies to support TikTok.

It also would force Apple and Google to remove TikTok from its app stores, making it impossible for TikTok to receive critical software update, leading to its eventual, if very slow, death.

Analysts have also said that the biggest beneficiaries of a TikTok ban would be Meta and Google, since TikTok users would likely move to Reels, a TikTok rival available on Meta-owned Instagram, or Google's competing service, YouTube Shorts.

Before any of that becomes a possibility, though, TikTok and the Biden administration will be squaring up in court, where arguments over balancing free speech with national security could take years to finally resolve.

While there is no telling exactly how quickly, or if ever, the legislation will prompt TikTok to be shuttered, the saga represents one of the most existential battles the app has ever faced.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.