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TikTok bans explained: Everything you need to know

The United States government takes aim at the viral video sharing application TikTok.

A bill to ban TikTok in the United States has garnered bipartisan support, passing both houses of Congress and has been signed by President Joe Biden. The overall TikTok ban is also set to loom as an issue in the 2024 presidential election.

TikTok has been under fire in the U.S. for years while raising questions about data access laws. Those concerns led the U.S. House of Representatives to pass legislation on March 13, 2024, requiring Chinese company ByteDance to sell off the social media app within six months or be banned from U.S. stores and websites. The ban would force Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores, and service providers could not make it available on browsers in the United States.

What is the TikTok ban bill?

The bill -- known as the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act (H.R. 7521) -- passed the House by a 325-65 vote with overwhelming support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. That standalone bill was not voted on by the U.S. Senate.

The House of Representatives tried again a month later, when on April 20, 2024, it voted on a foreign aid package (H.R. 815) for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel, that also included the TikTok provisions. That bill once again had bipartisan support, passing the the House with a 360-58 vote. The U.S. Senate voted and passed the bill on April 23, in a 79-18 vote with bipartisan support.

President Biden signed National Security Act, 2024 into law on April 24, 2024. The act includes the TikTok divest or ban bill.

Under the terms of the bill signed by Biden, ByteDance will have nine months to divest itself of TikTok and find new ownership for the social media company. The president also has the power to extend the time by an additional 90 days if a deal is still in progress at the end of the nine-month period. The nine-month deadline hits Jan. 24, 2025, and if the 90-day extension is applied, the final deadline would be April 24, 2025.

Former president Donald Trump -- who favored a TikTok ban while in office -- now opposes a ban as he challenges Biden in the 2024 race for the White House.

TikTok pushed back against the initial rounds of voting in Congress, rolling out a $2.1 million advertising campaign featuring U.S. users discussing how the app has helped them and their businesses. Reflecting the political nature of the ban, TikTok focused its ads on U.S. battleground states with tough 2024 Senate races to try to convince incumbents to block the House of Representatives ban.

In a statement issued by TikTok after the bill was signed, the company claimed the law was unconstitutional. TikTok also stated that it would challenge the law in court. The company's CEO, Shou Zi Chew, emphasized that TikTok users in the U.S. will continue to have access to the platform as the bill is challenged.

TikTok claims 170 million Americans use the app, and nearly 5 million businesses have used it to start and grow their companies.

TikTok ban timeline: How it happened and what comes next?

TikTok has been under fire for a number of years. Here's a look at the TikTok saga:

  • September 2020. The Trump administration attempted to use its emergency power to block the application.
  • January 2023. TikTok proposed a $1.5 billion plan called Project Texas to move all U.S. data to the United States to allay privacy and security concerns. That plan, which transferred data to Oracle’s cloud and set up a U.S. subsidiary to manage it, failed to sway Congress when it voted on its ban.
  • February 2023. The Biden Administration banned TikTok on devices used by federal employees.
  • March 2023. The FBI and U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into allegations that TikTok spied on American journalists. Chew appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to defend the application. His testimony touched on TikTok's consumer privacy and data security policies, the platform's mental health impact and security concerns about the platform's parent company, ByteDance.
  • March 2024. U.S. House of Representatives passes legislation requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok or be banned in U.S. app stores and websites. It then moved to the Senate, where it was never voted on.
  • April 2024. Both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate pass a foreign aid package, which included the TikTok legislation. Days later, Biden signed the bill into law.
  • May 2024. TikTok files a lawsuit with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., alleging the law is unconstitutional because it stifles free speech. The suit also alleges an unlawful taking of private property. Eight content creators also sued the U.S. government, alleging the law violates the First Amendment right to free speech.

Why does the U.S. want to ban TikTok?

The United States wants to ban the application for several reasons, but mainly due to national security concerns. U.S. lawmakers are concerned that ByteDance may leak U.S. user data to the Chinese government if the Chinese government forced them to.

"Today, the CCP's [Chinese Communist Party's] laws require Chinese companies like ByteDance to spy on their behalf," Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said during the hearing.

Shou Zi Chew told U.S. lawmakers that China-based ByteDance employees would have access to some U.S. TikTok user data until Project Texas is implemented. TikTok does not condone any effort by its own employees to access U.S. user data.

TikTok releases a transparency report where it discloses formal legal requests for user data. The biannual information request report shows how many requests were made in each country. According to the latest report, requests for information by law enforcement reached an all-time high in the first half of 2022, with 4,054 total requests around the globe.

Every testimonial in the five-hour congressional hearing touched on different topics, but some of the main focuses included the following:

  • Addictiveness. While TikTok's addictiveness is a concern, it has a feature that tells users to leave the application after 60 minutes.
  • Misinformation. TikTok claims it does not allow misinformation as part of its community guidelines and actively works to remove it. It also does not accept political ads.
  • Children's safety. There are many concerns over children abusing or misusing the application. However, TikTok has different UX for users under 13. For example, they cannot go viral and cannot use the private messaging feature.
  • Mental health. Content that promotes eating disorders, tobacco use or suicide is a concern. However, TikTok -- like most social media companies -- has a content moderation policy and aims to remove all violating content.
  • Selling data. Gathering and selling data that TikTok doesn't need to make a profit is a concern. TikTok claims it does not sell data to data brokers.
  • Data security. Data leaks are a concern. Data leaks are a risk with any online service and common with social media. TikTok -- and other social media platforms -- use data access protocols to protect and organize data into categories of sensitivity.

The U.S. already bans the application on federal and public sector employees' phones and on state employees' phones in 32 of 50 states. Several states have also recently sued TikTok. The first state to sue the company was Indiana, on claims that the application serves users inappropriate content and violates consumer protection laws in its data collection practices. Another lawsuit came from Arkansas, which sued TikTok, ByteDance and Facebook's parent company, Meta, over claims that the companies violate the Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Montana was the first U.S. state to pass legislation banning TikTok on all personal devices. The bill was to go into effect in January 2024, but a federal judge temporarily blocked the ban in November 2023, saying it likely violated the First Amendment. The law would have prevented the app from operating within the state and fined app stores that hosted TikTok within state lines up to $10,000 per day. A final decision in the matter will be made following a trial expected sometime in 2024.

Several universities have also banned the app on their networks.

Who might buy TikTok?

The value of TikTok has been estimated as high as $100 billion, raising the question of who would buy if ByteDance is willing to sell. That’s more than twice the $44 billion that Elon Musk paid for Twitter in 2022.

That would limit potential buyers to the world’s richest individuals -- a consortium of investors or tech giants. Several individuals have publicly or reportedly expressed interest in putting together a group to purchase TikTok from ByteDance. They include the following:

  • Steven Mnuchin, an investment banker and former U.S. Treasury Secretary.
  • Chris Pavlovski, CEO of online video platform Rumble, who has suggested including Rumble in a consortium to purchase TikTok.
  • Former Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.
  • Shark Tank investor Kevin O’Leary.
  • Frank McCourt, billionaire businessman and real estate mogul.

Microsoft, Oracle, X (formerly Twitter) and Walmart have also all been mentioned as potential TikTok buyers. Google and Meta have been mentioned as possible suitors but might face antitrust hurdles.

What countries is TikTok banned in?

The United States is not the only country that has full or partial TikTok bans in place. Partial bans are usually limited to government or public sector employees. Full bans apply to all citizens.

Some countries have full bans on TikTok, including Afghanistan, India, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Somalia.

Regions with partial bans and the devices they're banned on include the following:

  • Australia -- on devices issued by some individual government agencies.
  • Belgium -- on federal government work devices.
  • Canada -- on government-issued devices.
  • Denmark -- on Defense Ministry staff devices.
  • European Union -- on Parliament, Commission and EU Council staff devices.
  • France -- on professional phones of civil servants.
  • Latvia -- on work devices at the Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • New Zealand -- on Parliament members' and lawmakers' work devices.
  • Norway -- on government work devices.
  • Taiwan -- on government devices.
  • United Kingdom -- on government devices.
  • United States -- on federal government devices and systems.

    Other countries have banned TikTok in the past and have since rescinded the bans. Two examples are Indonesia and Pakistan, which both banned the application temporarily due to explicit content.

    How would the U.S. enforce a ban?

    It's unclear how the United States would prohibit citizens from using the application on their personal devices. Forcing popular app stores such as Google Play and Apple App Store, to remove the app from their platforms would make it much harder to acquire the app but wouldn't remove it from phones that already have it downloaded. On phones with the app installed, there would be no more updates or new features, and the apps would slowly become harder to use.

    Another possible scenario involves forcing internet and telecommunications providers to block TikTok, which would make it impossible to use. The Indian government blocked TikTok entirely using this method.

    A third option involves criminalizing the application, which has been done before but not with an application anywhere near the size of TikTok.

    What types of data does TikTok collect?

    One point of contention is the safety of TikTok's recommendation engine. The recommendation engine uses behavioral data to determine the user's interests and feed them relevant content. Some data that TikTok uses to do this is the following:

    • How long a user stays on a page.
    • If a user shares a video.
    • If a user swipes away from a video.
    • If a user comments on a video.
    • If a user likes a video.
    • Basic login information, such as name, age, phone number and email address.
    • Location data.
    • IP address.
    • Biometric data.

    Dispersion mechanisms are used to keep the user from seeing repetitive content. TikTok's data collection protocols are available in full on its privacy policy page.

    Challenges of banning TikTok

    There are many challenges that face the TikTok ban.

    Notably, TikTok is challenging the legality of the bill. That court challenge could tie up any potential implementation for months or years.

    If the U.S. government prevails against the court challenges, banning TikTok will face other issues. One of the main challenges of banning TikTok is alienating young users politically. TikTok's user base skews young. To ban access to the app would negatively influence a lot of young voters who enjoy the app.

    Another challenge is that many SMBs rely on the platform for their business model. Many multinational corporations also have their own TikTok accounts and rely on the platform for some portion of business. There are petitions to save the app and protests against the ban, with support from lawmakers as well.

    A third challenge of banning TikTok is gathering and presenting evidence that the application is a national security threat or a danger to users in some way. This would involve differentiating the application from other social media companies, such as Meta and Twitter, that also collect user data; are vulnerable to breaches and privacy concerns; and are -- to a degree -- under the control of their operating country's government.

    The investigation into TikTok has reinvigorated a larger conversation about data privacy on all social platforms, sparking calls for data privacy law reform.

    TikTok vs. Douyin

    Both TikTok and Douyin are owned by ByteDance.

    While TikTok is not available in mainland China, Douyin is a short-form video application that is often portrayed as the Chinese version of TikTok. Douyin has to follow Chinese media laws, and a Chinese phone number is required to download Douyin. TikTok is available in many countries around the world and is beholden to the laws of the country it operates in.

    Douyin has more features than TikTok. For example, Douyin has hotel booking and e-payment features in the application. It also offers full-length movies, in addition to standard short-form video. Douyin preceded TikTok. Douyin was launched in 2016, whereas TikTok was launched in 2017.

    The TikTok ban could potentially affect ByteDance's other applications in the U.S. The company offers several apps in U.S. app stores, such as the video editing app CapCut and the photo editing app Hypic. At the time of this writing, ByteDance's newest app is Lemon8, a health, fitness and wellness app.

    The language used in the Congressional bill suggests that these apps would also need to be divested in order to continue operating in the U.S. market.

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