What’s going on with the TikTok ban?


TikTok's neon logo and music note symbol on a concrete wall
Image Credits: Tolga Akmen / Contributor / Getty Images

With a U.S. ban of TikTok looming, it might look like game over for the hit video sharing app, which has taken the world by storm in recent years, reshaping every aspect of culture in the process.

Uncertainty abounds right now, but TikTok’s fate is far from sealed. We’ve answered some common questions about a situation that’s complex, confusing and changing as we speak.

What happened in Congress?

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress last week, enduring five hours of intense questioning from lawmakers over concerns that China might leverage the app to compromise U.S. national security. TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, setting it apart from other major social media companies based in the U.S.

“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said in his opening statements, a refrain TikTok’s CEO repeated throughout the hearing as he sought to reassure lawmakers.

National security concerns were just one of the worries that representatives expressed about TikTok. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee also raised red flags over issues ranging from the app’s eating disorder content and viral challenges to its flimsy tools designed to prevent social media addiction among teens. Those concerns, which focus mainly on vulnerable underage users, are serious, but also issues that TikTok shares with U.S.-based social media companies like Instagram and YouTube.

In many ways, the TikTok hearing went much like other major tech CEO hearings have gone in recent years. Lawmakers generally spent their time grandstanding and posturing for sound bites, dredging up little in the way of new information on TikTok, ByteDance or their operations in the process. Ultimately, the hearing isn’t likely to move the needle on TikTok’s domestic fate, but it does serve as a useful barometer for the headwinds the company faces in its biggest market.

Why ban TikTok?

The effort to ban TikTok in the U.S. began during the Trump administration, but the Biden White House recently picked up the baton.

In recent months, the Biden administration, Congress and a number of U.S. agencies have all sounded the alarm about the app, which regularly tops the charts both nationally and abroad. While there’s no public evidence that China has ever tapped into TikTok’s stores of American user data, that hasn’t stopped the U.S. government from highlighting the possibility that it could if it wanted to.

FBI Director Chris Wray summed up U.S. officials’ anxieties recently, cautioning that there might not be “outward signs” if China ultimately decided to meddle in the data collected by its homegrown hit. “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.

What do TikTok users think?

In light of U.S. threats to ban or force a sale of TikTok, the FBI director’s comments — and similar arguments made during the hearing — are likely to rub many TikTok devotees the wrong way.

“The risk seems to be entirely speculative … I’m not sure how it is substantially worse than all of the things that are troubling about social media right now that the government has not been focusing on,” one TikTok creator, who also teaches a class on tech ethics at the University of Colorado Boulder, told TechCrunch after the hearing.

Many creators flocked to TikTok to express their frustration with out-of-touch lawmakers who could decide the app’s fate without making much of an effort to understand its community (or, in some cases, its basic functions).

This month, TikTok announced that it has more than 150 million users in the U.S. alone. That massive user base demonstrates the app’s staying power and the scope of its cultural impact, which still appears to be on the upswing. By releasing those stats just before Chew’s hearing, TikTok flexed just how many Americans would be unhappy if their favorite app suddenly becomes unavailable in the country.

‘So infuriating’: TikTokers are fuming over potential ban

Are the concerns legit?

Accusations that the Chinese government plans to use the app as a Trojan horse into Americans’ data might be unfounded, but there are reasons to believe that ByteDance doesn’t take privacy very seriously.

In December, TikTok confirmed reporting that ByteDance employees tracked journalists’ IP addresses through the app in a scheme to crack down on internal leaks. Four ByteDance employees were fired, but the incident is a lingering black eye for a company eager to build trust with regulators abroad. It’s also sparked a federal investigation by the Justice Department.

A different report last year also undermined TikTok’s public reassurances about data privacy, finding that ByteDance employees based in China had regular access to U.S. user data — a fact that contradicted the company’s claims.

Beyond those privacy lapses, the fact remains that China does exert unique influence on private companies operating there. The Chinese government strategically takes a stake in some businesses, quietly claiming seats on the board and influencing decision-making.

“For the companies, there is little choice: Selling such a stake to a government entity that seeks one is crucial for staying in business,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in a recent report on the practice.

Even as TikTok seeks to portray itself as wholly independent, China is keen to remind the U.S. of its unique authority over the popular export. Last week, the Chinese government asserted that it would oppose a forced sale — an act of defiance that would appear within its rights following an update to Chinese export rules in late 2020.

Again, there is no evidence that China is meddling in TikTok’s affairs. And there’s a strong argument that the country wouldn’t need direct access to the app to obtain useful data about Americans.

TikTok, like other social media apps, stores a massive treasure trove of data on its users. And because the U.S. lacks federal data privacy protections, companies can freely buy and sell all sorts of data on Americans’ locations, behavior and demographics to the highest bidder.

TechCrunch’s Zack Whittaker rightly argues that proper legislation aimed at protecting American consumers would go much further than the current posturing around TikTok:

TikTok isn’t the only company capable of sharing data with China. Thousands of American apps and companies share our information with advertisers and data brokers, which also expose that data to China, in large part because nothing exists to curb the sharing or selling of data to anyone who wants it, from startups to authoritarian regimes.

What happens next?

Between China’s recent comments and its own, TikTok looks unlikely to agree to a U.S. proposal to sell to a new owner. The company is also well aware that a similar arrangement made at then-President Trump’s behest eventually fell apart.

“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan told TechCrunch+.

If the company did acquiesce, it would probably need to go back to the drawing board rather than picking up where the similar doomed deal during the Trump administration left off. That process that would be lengthy and complex.

In the Biden era, a deal with Oracle wouldn’t confer the same political perks that it would have under Trump, who was backed by Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison. If the administration does try to line up a new deal to give an American company oversight of TikTok’s U.S. operations, the whole thing could fall apart again if Biden loses office in 2024.

If the forced sale path doesn’t pan out, a TikTok ban could come from a few places, likely in the form of legislation or an executive order. That process would also be lengthy, messy and subject to myriad legal challenges, so it’s not likely that we’ll see access to the app restricted anytime soon.

While it’s recently looked like smooth sailing for a ban in Congress, a few dissenting voices have emerged to oppose the U.S. crackdown, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). This week, the former blocked an attempt by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) that would expedite legislation to ban TikTok, arguing that a ban would violate the First Amendment.

Whether a ban materialized out of Congress or through the White House, it would have to claw its way through the courts, which would ultimately have the final say. If the Trump-era TikTok ban is any indication, the company might have the upper hand in that process.

TikTok won multiple challenges to the U.S. executive order banning TikTok during the Trump administration. In one of those cases, the legal challenge came from a group of TikTok creators, who successfully argued that the ban lacked substance and would cause them to lose their incomes. After a flurry of legal challenges, the Biden administration ultimately revoked the Trump-era executive order, an ordeal that should serve as a cautionary tale for the executive order route.

While all of this plays out, ByteDance is biding its time and tending to its other irons in the fire. CapCut, a ByteDance-owned standalone video editing tool, sits in third place on the App Store’s charts. And following some savvily timed investment, a little-known ByteDance-owned Instagram rival called Lemon8 just managed to crack the App Store’s top 10 rankings for the first time.

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