What’s going on with the new bill that could ban TikTok?

TikTok faces an uncertain fate in the U.S. once again.

After a surprise flurry of activity in the House this week, TikTok is the target of a new government push to separate the company from its Chinese ownership or force it out of the country.

TikTok is based in Los Angeles and Singapore, but is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance. That relationship that has raised eyebrows among U.S. officials, who warn that the app could be leveraged to further the interests of an adversary.

What happened this week?

This week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee introduced a new bill designed to pressure ByteDance into selling TikTok.

The legislation, the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, would make it illegal for software with ties to U.S. adversaries to be distributed within the country. (Ownership by an entity based in an adversary country, like ByteDance in China, counts.)

In language of the bill, which goes on to name TikTok explicitly, “it shall be unlawful for an entity to distribute, maintain, or update (or enable the distribution, maintenance, or updating of) a foreign adversary controlled application.” If the bill became law, Apple’s App Store and Google Play could not legally distribute the app in the U.S.

The bill, which many of its detractors reasonably describe as a “ban,” would force ByteDance to sell TikTok within six months for the app to continue operating here. It also empowers the president to have oversight of this process to ensure that it results in the company in question “no longer being controlled by a foreign adversary.”

After getting wind of the bill’s swift and sudden progress in Congress, TikTok pushed back with a mass in-app message to U.S. users on Thursday morning, complete with a button for calling their representatives.

“Speak up now — before your government strips 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression,” the message read. “Let Congress know what TikTok means to you and tell them to vote NO.”

In spite of TikTok’s decision to rile up its users — or perhaps because of it — the bill to force ByteDance to sell TikTok passed through the House Energy and Commerce Committee with a 50-0 vote on Thursday. Now that the fast-tracked bill is out of committee, it is expected to have a full vote in the House in the upcoming week.

Prior to the vote, subcommittee members had a classified briefing with the FBI, the Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence at the behest of the Biden administration, Punchbowl News reported.

This week, President Biden also explicitly said that he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk. “If they pass it, I’ll sign it,” Biden told a group of reporters on Friday.

Why does the U.S. say TikTok is a threat?

To be clear, there is currently no public evidence that China has ever tapped into TikTok’s stores of data on Americans or otherwise compromised the app.

Still, that fact hasn’t stopped the U.S. government from highlighting the possibility that China could if it wanted to. The Chinese government hasn’t been shy about going hands-on with companies in the country or keeping critics from its business community in line.

FBI Director Chris Wray once cautioned that users might not see “outward signs” if China were ever to meddle with TikTok. “Something that’s very sacred in our country — the difference between the private sector and the public sector — that’s a line that is nonexistent in the way the CCP operates,” Wray said in a Senate hearing last year.

TikTok has vehemently denied these accusations. “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said last year during a separate hearing with the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

To TikTok’s credit, if China wanted to get its hands on information about U.S. users, Beijing could easily turn to data brokers who openly sell troves of user data around the globe with little oversight.

Because the U.S. has not produced any public evidence to back up its serious claims, there’s a major disconnect between how politicians feel about TikTok and how most Americans do. For many TikTok users, the U.S. crackdown is just one more way that politicians are out of touch with young people and don’t understand how they use the internet. For them — and other skeptics of the U.S. government’s claims — the situation looks like pure political posturing between two countries with bad blood, sometimes with a dash of racism.

What happens now?

The campaign to force ByteDance to sell TikTok to a U.S. company originated with an executive order during the Trump administration. Trump’s threats against the company culminated in a plan to force TikTok to sell its U.S. operations to Oracle in late 2020. In the process, TikTok rejected an acquisition offer from Microsoft but ultimately didn’t sell to Oracle either.

That executive action fizzled in 2021 after Biden took office. But last year, the Biden administration picked up the baton, escalating a pressure campaign against the app along with Congress. Now, that campaign looks to be back on track.

The new bill, which would effectively ban TikTok in the U.S. if it doesn’t split with its Chinese ownership, has only cleared a House committee vote so far. President Biden has signaled his support for the legislation, but the bill still needs to come to a full vote in the House.

Even if it does pass in the House this week, which is possible considering that lawmakers are willing to vote on it this quickly, the anti-TikTok legislation still faces an unknown fate in the Senate. We may learn more next week if senators begin weighing in on the prospect of creating their own version of the house bill. It’s possible that the Senate doesn’t have the same appetite for going after TikTok this year, which would either stall the House’s efforts or kill them outright.

There is some strong bipartisan Congressional support for regulating TikTok, but things are still pretty complex. The most obvious complication: TikTok is enormously popular and we’re in an election year. TikTok has 170 million users in the U.S. and they aren’t likely to quietly watch as Congress effectively bans their favorite source of entertainment and information.

“This legislation has a predetermined outcome: a total ban of TikTok in the United States,” TikTok spokesperson Alex Haurek told TechCrunch in an emailed statement.

“The government is attempting to strip 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression,” Haurek said, foreshadowing the massive public outcry that could result. “This will damage millions of businesses, deny artists an audience, and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country.”

The cultural reach of TikTok is so great that Biden is campaigning on TikTok, even as the White House calls the app a national security threat.

Even if the bill makes it out of the House and finds support in the Senate, the U.S. scheme to force ByteDance to sell TikTok could still fail — an outcome that may or may not result in a ban. China has previously stated that it would oppose a forced sale of TikTok, which is well within the Chinese government’s rights following an update to the country’s export rules in late 2020.

TikTok itself would also surely mount a strong legal challenge against the forced sale, much as it did when the Trump administration previously tried to accomplish the same thing through executive action. TikTok also sued when Montana attempted to enact its own ban at the state level, which ultimately resulted in a federal judge issuing an injunction and blocking the effort.

Beyond Congress and the courts, TikTok holds a direct line to a massive chunk of the American electorate and a fleet of creators who command many millions of loyal followers. Those levers of power shouldn’t be underestimated in the fight to come.

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