Sell or Be Banned: Why the Latest Bill to Ban TikTok Won’t Solve the Problem

tiktok ban on phone with american flag in the background
salarko/Shutterstock Remix by Caterina Cox

A year ago, TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew was jerked around on Capitol Hill by lawmakers considering a TikTok ban. As creators rallied outside in protest, dinosaur politicians produced red-scare sound bites to rile up their constituents. Some lawmakers showed they clearly did not understand how social media works. Or simply didn’t care. One asked, “Does TikTok access the home Wi-Fi network?”

Now, Republicans and Democrats are joining hands over legislation that would force TikTok to shut down in the US unless it cut ties with its parent company, China-based ByteDance, and sells to a US-based company.

TikTok sent out push alerts to users on the morning of March 7 to urge them to call their representatives about the bill. The House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously advanced the bill later in the day. It will likely be taken up in the U.S. House of Representatives in the coming weeks.

The bill would allow the president to label social media platforms as national security threats under the control of “foreign adversaries.” These currently include China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Once the President determines an app to be a “risk,” it would be banned from app stores unless it wholly severed ties with these countries within 180 days.

In TikTok’s case, it would have to quickly sell (aka “divest” its assets) or leave the U.S. entirely. The White House has signaled support for the bill — despite Biden recently joining the platform and trying to meme it up with the youth.

There’s no doubt that TikTok is a shady business. But with so many people’s livelihoods and businesses at stake, blanket bans or forced divestitures are not the answer. Especially considering the minimal evidence that the Chinese government is accessing user data in the US.

TikTok actually has a somewhat hostile relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), despite enforcing its censorship demands on several occasions. Amid 2020 protests in Hong Kong, TikTok shut down its operations rather than succumbing to new draconian CCP censorship laws. In 2019, it apologized for accidentally banning a US-based teen who made a makeup tutorial in which she discussed the CCP’s Uygher internment camps in China

The platform also spent over $1.5 billion to secure user data through “Project Texas.” The project rolled out in July 2022 in response to US threats of a TikTok ban. It attempted to onshore all US user data locally, onto Texas-based cloud servers by tech company Oracle.

All this caused CCP supporters to label ByteDance’s CEO “a traitor of China, an American apologist, and a coward.” 

There have been some reports to suggest China has “backdoor” access to user data. One of the most damning came from a former ByteDance employee. He alleged the CCP spied on protestors in Hong Kong.

TikTok also definitely spied on journalists in the US. But only to track internal company leaks — not to leak sensitive information to the CCP.

There is also some evidence suggesting Project Texas is porous, allowing some data to leak out. But couldn’t lawmakers address that issue, instead of issuing a blanket ban? If lawmakers mandated stricter rules to firewall US data, TikTok may not need to switch owners. 

ByteDance might consider trying to sell TikTok if needed, but the problem is finding a willing buyer. The platform is worth around $50 billion, and experts suggest it is too expensive for most companies to purchase. This includes competitors like Snap.

And companies like Meta, Google, or Microsoft are unlikely to attempt the purchase for fear of unwanted antitrust attention. Not to mention that with a crunched time frame of 180 days, the sale would be difficult to close. 

Plus, Congress has not considered how the hell TikTok would separate its US assets from its global operations in such a short time frame. 

“Under Project Texas, TikTok has said that they’ve domiciled user data and processing in the United States. So, I’m not sure that there would be serious technical difficulties with divestiture. But there could still be some insurmountable hurdles that the company hasn’t disclosed,” William Rinehart, a senior research fellow at Utah State University who has studied a potential TikTok ban, told Passionfruit.

There’s also no telling what a US buyer might change if it were to acquire the platform.

“Any large-scale economic or infrastructural shift — such as the proposed divesture — ​is bound to impact the working lives of influencers and small-business owners who depend upon the platform for access to globally dispersed audiences,” Cornell professor Brooke Erin Duffy, who studies social media, told Passionfruit. 

There is a kind of bittersweetness to imagining a world without TikTok. It has a history of blocking videos related to human rights in China. In particularly egregious examples, it suppressed videos about the genocide of Uyghur Muslims in the country. A 2020 report revealed TikTok instructed content moderators to suppress “ugly, poor, or disabled” creators on the platform. That same report also showed evidence that TikTok told moderators to censor political speech about “national honor” and the police in China.

That said, such sweeping legislative action would jeopardize the free speech, creative expression, and economic livelihoods of 150 million people. It’s also probably worth mentioning that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is a privately-held global company. According to the company, global institutional investors (such as Blackrock, General Atlantic, etc) own roughly 60 percent of it. It also employs 7,000 Americans.

So there should probably be more significant consideration about how specifically TikTok is risking our safety and security before it’s impulsively yanked off the market by people who don’t understand how many people’s lives depend on it.

But the good news is that even if this bill passes, it will not go down without a fight.

“To be sure, if TikTok were to get shut down, it could be a blow to creators who are making a living on the platform. But my guess is that even if the bill were to pass Congress and get signed into law, it would be challenged,” researcher Rinehart said. “There are very serious First Amendment concerns that make forced divestiture uncertain.”

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