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The House passed a TikTok ban bill. But is the app really a national security threat?

Devotees of TikTok gather at the Capitol in Washington, as the House passed a bill that would lead to a nationwide ban of the popular video app if its China-based owner doesn't sell.
J. Scott Applewhite
/
AP
Devotees of TikTok gather at the Capitol in Washington, as the House passed a bill that would lead to a nationwide ban of the popular video app if its China-based owner doesn't sell.

The House of Representatives passed legislation on Wednesday giving TikTok two choices: find a buyer for the immensely popular video app, or face a nationwide ban in the U.S.

President Biden has indicated he would sign the law, but first it must clear the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future. Several other anti-TikTok efforts in the Senate have stalled, and it is too soon to tell whether the House's legislation will meet a different fate.

Whatever happens with this measure, it marks the first time a chamber of Congress has passed a bill that could shut down a social media platform, a move that civil liberties advocates say tramples on the free speech rights of millions of American users.

TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance, views the House legislation as an existential threat but not a novel attack, since the social media app has fended off numerous other attempts to put it out of business.

So what is different this time?

Here's a breakdown of what you need to know.

What exactly does the House bill do?

The bill gives ByteDance six months to find a buyer for TikTok.

If the company cannot sell the app in that time, it will become illegal for app stores and web-hosting companies to offer TikTok, as long as it remains under the control of a "foreign adversary."

That, in turn, would force Apple and Google to remove TikTok from app stores. It would also require internet service providers to make TikTok inaccessible on internet browsers in the U.S.

There is no way to make TikTok disappear for the 170 million Americans who have already downloaded it. But removing TikTok from app stores would mean that users would not be able to download any further software updates. And experts say without the ability to update regularly, the app would become slow, glitchy, buggy and rife with other problems to the point where using it at all would be just about impossible.

In other words, TikTok would die a slow, gradual death, rather than a swift demise.

What will the House bill mean for TikTok users?

In the short term, users will likely not notice any changes. The app will work as it always does for the millions of Americans who enjoy it.

And even if the Senate passes a companion bill, and Biden signs it into law, there is a six-month deadline to sell, which could be prolonged by court challenges.

In the event that TikTok does become illegal in the U.S., it would be tricky to access the app, but there will be workarounds.

People could turn to virtual private networks, or VPNs, to shield their location and get past restrictions. The technique is popular in places like Russia and China, where governments have prohibited many popular internet apps and services.

Who could buy TikTok if ByteDance is forced to sell?

Very few companies.

As one of the most popular social media apps in the world, ByteDance would sell TikTok at a hefty price. TikTok is likely worth tens of billions of dollars, an amount only the biggest tech companies — like Google, Meta, Microsoft or Amazon — could afford.

But the prospect of TikTok being acquired by a Big Tech firm raises instant antitrust concerns, since the Biden administration has taken a tough stance against tech industry mergers that serve to inflate the size and influence of already massive companies.

What's more, TikTok's sale would require the approval of China, which has said it would strongly oppose the forced sale of its first-ever global sensation of an app.

As the Senate considers a companion bill, it is possible that lawmakers in Washington would use the House bill as leverage to try to force TikTok to find a non-Chinese buyer, but talks over selling the app have been going on without a resolution for years.

What is the case that TikTok poses a national security risk?

Many in Washington, including lawmakers from both parties and top intelligence officials, fear the Chinese government could use TikTok to spy on Americans, push pro-China propaganda, or use the service to interfere in U.S. elections.

To date, lawmakers have not offered any evidence of the Chinese Communist Party using TikTok as a weapon against American interests.

Some critics of the bill say it is misguided if the goal is keeping Americans' data out of the hands of the Chinese government.

"The same kind of data that are collected by TikTok can easily be obtained by anyone who wants them by data aggregators and data brokers," said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

"The ban will be ineffective because China can access the same kind of information about Americans without TikTok," he said.

But have there been developments that have troubled officials in Washington?

Yes.

ByteDance admitted in 2022 that former employees — but not government officials — had surveilled Americans on TikTok, including several journalists who were writing critical stories about the company.

And last year, a former ByteDance executive said in a court filing that the Chinese government has in the past been granted a "superuser" credential on TikTok, and that it was used to spy on Hong Kong protesters in 2018, something the company denies.

While neither incident shows that the Chinese government has used TikTok for espionage or disinformation campaigns on U.S. users, the developments have fueled a growing worry that Beijing could order that the app's algorithm be manipulated to shape what millions of American users see when they scroll.

What has TikTok said in response?

TikTok has long claimed it has never received an inquiry for Americans' data from Chinese authorities, saying it would deny any such request.

The company has also touted an initiative dubbed "Project Texas," saying that all U.S. user data has been transferred to servers controlled by Austin-based software company Oracle. TikTok also says Americans' data is now being monitored by third-party auditors in the U.S.

The plan, essentially a data firewall, was intended to ensure that Chinese officials cannot access Americans' personal information.

But under Chinese law, companies still have to turn over personal user data once it is sought by government officials.

This is why national security officials in Washington, who have been investigating TikTok's ties to Beijing for five years, have not approved the plan.

There is a consensus in the White House that any move TikTok takes short of complete divestiture from China is unacceptable.

If the House bill eventually becomes law, won't there be a legal challenge?

It is all but certain that TikTok will try to have a ban overturned in the courts.

Legal experts say shutting down a social media platform in the name of national security is something that can only be accomplished if the security threat is overwhelming.

Otherwise, it will likely be considered an infringement of the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans, if the government cannot show that the speech constraint is justified.

"Restricting Americans' right to access information or ideas on a media platform from abroad implicates the First Amendment. There's really no dispute about that," said Jaffer with the Knight First Amendment Institute

Previous attempts to shutter TikTok in the U.S. have not been successful.

Three separate federal district judges have blocked efforts to ban TikTok — two courts during the Trump administration, and one U.S. court more recently in Montana.

Judge Wendy Beetlestone found in 2020 that TikTok's national security threat is "phrased in the hypothetical."

In late 2023, judge Donald Molloy said that a crusade by officials in Montana to block TikTok within the state's borders had a "pervasive undertone of anti-Chinese sentiment."

Many constitutional scholars say banning TikTok requires clearing nearly insurmountable legal hurdles.

What evidence does the government have against TikTok?

If officials in Washington declassify national security information about TikTok, that could change the public's understanding of the app's threat.

Yet some lawmakers are already questioning the basis for targeting TikTok.

A handful of members of Congress who left a closed-door briefing about TikTok with top national security officials in the Biden administration a day before the House vote said officials did not back up the notion that TikTok is dangerous with any new information.

"Not a single thing we heard in today's classified briefing was specific to TikTok," Sara Jacobs, a Democratic from California told the Associated Press. "These are things that are happening on all social media platforms."

If the bill eventually becomes law and ends up in court, the government will have to demonstrate on what basis it is making a national security case against TikTok, Jaffer said.

"You can't restrict Americans' constitutional rights on the basis of secrets," he said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.