Apr 21, 2024 - Technology

"Perils of TikTok" thriller moves to the next reel

Illustration of an anvil swaying back and forth above the TikTok app icon.

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Congress' likely passage of a law forcing TikTok's Chinese owner to sell its U.S. operations will close one lengthy chapter of the "Washington vs. TikTok" epic — and open a new one that could be equally drawn-out.

What's next: TikTok won't simply vanish from its millions of users' devices the moment the ban becomes law. Its fight to remain in the U.S. under ByteDance ownership will now shift from Congress and regulatory agencies to the courts.

The latest: The TikTok ban, which passed the House earlier this year but had stalled in the Senate, was tacked on to the larger foreign-aid package the House approved Saturday. The Senate is expected to approve it in days.

  • The bill would give ByteDance up to a year to find a U.S. buyer for TikTok or face a ban.
  • China's government has signaled that it would block any forced sale of TikTok by ByteDance.

Friction point: Members of Congress have already raised constitutional questions about legislation that targets a specific company by name, and ByteDance is nearly certain to take up that argument in challenging the law.

  • Supporters of free trade fear that the law could set a precedent for other nations to force U.S. tech companies to sell off their local operations.

Catch up quick: U.S. security and intelligence experts have long sounded alarms that American TikTok users' data could be harvested by Chinese authorities, and that China could use TikTok as a propaganda channel in a future crisis.

  • In 2020, then-president Trump kicked off the "ban TikTok" movement with an executive order.
  • That foundered in court, but TikTok promised to protect the privacy of its U.S. users by storing all its data with Oracle in Texas, far from the Chinese government's reach.
  • Reports continued to surface from former employees and whistleblowers that U.S. users' data was available to ByteDance employees in China — and perhaps to Beijing itself, which under Chinese law can compel local companies to share data with the government. TikTok says the Chinese government has no access to its U.S. user data.
  • This spring, with a long-running investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) in seemingly permanent limbo, Congress began fast-tracking bipartisan legislation aimed at TikTok.

Between the lines: Legal challenges to the new law are likely not only from ByteDance but also from TikTok's users and partners in the U.S.

  • TikTok infuriated members of Congress last month after it urged its users to contact their representatives and protest the proposed law forcing a sale.

The big picture: The immensely popular video-sharing app has only grown more entrenched in the U.S. in the years since it was first threatened.

A TikTok spokesperson said in a statement: "It is unfortunate that the House of Representatives is using the cover of important foreign and humanitarian assistance to once again jam through a ban bill that would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans, devastate 7 million businesses, and shutter a platform that contributes $24 billion to the U.S. economy annually."

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