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Is the Clock Ticking for TikTok?

By A.J. Firstman | Last updated on

Last week the House of Representatives voted 352-65 to give TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance six months to sell all of its TikTok-related American assets … or else.

The bipartisan Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act would essentially kill TikTok for its 170 million users if ByteDance fails to find a buyer in time. Web hosts would be forced to deny service to the app. Apple and Google would have to take the app out of their stores. Users who already have the app would stop receiving software and security updates. The app would be impossible to download legally, unusable without a VPN or similar workaround, and left to languish while its outdated code could become buggy, sluggish, and eventually unusable.

Though users, content creators, and TikTok itself are alarmed by the news, the bill still has a long way to go before being signed into law – though President Joe Biden has promised to do so if it reaches his desk.

A Struggle in U.S. Courts

Former President Trump tried to ban the app in 2020 via executive order, only to be blocked by a federal judge who found the proposed ban “arbitrary and capricious”. Trump no longer supports a ban on TikTok. Montana’s statewide ban was similarly overturned in the courts. Previous efforts to legislate the issue have either stalled or never made it out of the planning stages in both the House and Senate thanks, in part, to intense lobbying by TikTok.

In other words, it’s far from a done deal. And even if the bill makes it through the Senate and gets signed into law, TikTok will almost certainly challenge the law. The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are also arguing that the bill violates the First Amendment and is thus unconstitutional, possibly opening up another line of defense against the ban.

If the past is prologue, TikTok users should have little to fear from this latest attempt to ban their favorite timewaster. There’s a very good chance that the bill dies in the Senate or gets overturned in the courts, but it’s not a sure thing. This time the bill made it through the House with bipartisan support, and there is some political momentum for being tough on China and stopping its efforts at espionage and intellectual property theft.

Why Ban TikTok?

The problems that Congress and others have with TikTok almost exclusively concern its country of origin. America and China haven’t been getting along very well recently, in part because of the mind-boggling number of cyberattacks conducted by China’s army of state-sponsored hackers conduct daily.

The campaign is massive. You may remember the incident a few years ago when Chinese-backed hackers compromised the email servers of over 30,000 American businesses and local governments or the theft of intellectual property and trade secrets from Google and numerous other companies. And that’s just the start.

FBI Director Christopher Wray recently warned Congress that Chinese hackers have infiltrated water treatment plants, the electrical grid, oil and gas pipelines, transportation systems, and other critical infrastructure. And if that isn’t enough, it seems like they’ve been lurking in those systems for upwards of five years.

All of this is to say that the proposed ban on TikTok isn’t just based on general fears that China might use it to do something nefarious. It’s based on a very real fear that, hey, maybe it isn’t a great idea to give the Chinese government a backdoor into over 170 million American phones.

There are a number of concerns about what the Chinese government could do if they wanted to weaponize TikTok.

The first is fairly obvious: TikTok captures as much or more user data as other social media platforms. The company claims that American data never leaves America, and that the Chinese government has never asked them for it, but it probably isn’t wise to just take their word for it. It’s probably not smart to give them an easy backdoor into your phone, either.

Second, there are concerns that TikTok could be used to spy on or track its users – and for good reason.

Third, if the Chinese government wanted, it could force ByteDance to tweak its content-curating algorithm to spread misinformation, pro-China or anti-western propaganda, and manipulate public opinion in favor of Chinese interests. This one is more abstract and harder to prove, though no less creepy to think about.

Unclear and Uncertain

ByteDance may or may not divest itself of its American assets. TikTok may or may not be banned in the US in the same way that Google, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook are all banned in China. Over 170 million American users would really like to keep using it. Congress, the FBI, and other cybersecurity-minded people would really like to reduce the possibility of a massive, crippling attack on those 170 million users and any other devices connected to their Wi-Fi networks. Divorcing American TikTok from China seems like a decent compromise. We’ll see what happens.

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