Why Congress Voted to Force a Sale of TikTok in the U.S.

Equipo
By Equipo
11 Min Read

A push to force the sale in the United States of the short-form video app TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, took a leap forward as the U.S. House of Representatives voted on Saturday to ban the social media platform unless it is sold to a government-approved buyer.

The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation as early as Tuesday, and President Biden is expected to support it.

Lawmakers raising concerns about data security in the United States, Europe and Canada have escalated efforts to restrict the reach of the popular app.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 360 to 58 to give the company up to a year to find a buyer, considering the measure on the same day as Congress voted on an aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other American allies. The bill would also impose sanctions on Iran.

Momentum has been building for more than a year. The White House had told federal agencies in February 2023 to delete TikTok from government devices. The next month, House lawmakers grilled TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Chew, about the app’s ownership and China’s potential influence.

In March 2024, the House Energy and Commerce Committee advanced a bill calling for TikTok to cut ties with its parent company or face a ban in the United States. The bill, endorsed by the White House, passed in March, but the Senate took no action. Bundling a version of that measure with the aid package was meant to force the Senate’s hand.

Here’s why the pressure has been ratcheted up on TikTok.

It all comes down to China.

Lawmakers and regulators in the West have increasingly expressed concern that TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, may put sensitive user data, like location information, into the hands of the Chinese government. They have pointed to laws that allow the Chinese government to secretly demand data from Chinese companies and citizens for intelligence-gathering operations.

They are also worried that China could use TikTok’s content recommendations to fuel misinformation, a concern that has escalated in the United States during the Israel-Hamas war and the presidential election. Critics say that TikTok has fueled the spread of antisemitism and promoted pro-Palestinian content to American users.

TikTok has long denied such allegations and has tried to distance itself from ByteDance, which is considered to be one of the world’s most highly valued start-ups.

What’s happening at the local level?

More than 30 states, and New York City, have joined the federal government in banning TikTok on government-issued devices. Many colleges have blocked it from campus Wi-Fi networks. But students often just switch to cellular data to use the app.

In May 2023, Gov. Greg Gianforte of Montana signed a bill to ban TikTok from operating inside the state, the first prohibition of its kind in the nation.

TikTok filed suit, saying the legislation violated the First Amendment. In late November, a federal judge agreed and granted a preliminary injunction to put the legislation on hold.

Last August, New York City banned TikTok from city-owned devices after its cybersecurity agency determined that the app “posed a security threat to the city’s technical networks,” a City Hall spokesman said.

In December, a federal judge in Texas upheld a ban preventing state employees from using TikTok, finding it to be a “reasonable restriction” in light of Texas’ concerns about data privacy.

How would the congressional ban work?

Federal lawmakers turned their attention to forcing a sale of TikTok to a buyer that would be acceptable to the U.S. government, under threat of a ban.

The mechanics of a ban would take aim at app stores, like those operated by Apple and Google: if they distributed or updated TikTok, the federal government could impose civil penalties on them. Internet hosting companies would also be barred from helping to distribute or maintain TikTok.

The push to force a TikTok sale has already generated speculation about potential buyers, including a group of investors brought together by a former Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin; large American corporations; or a coalition of private equity firms.

The sell-or-be-banned approach has raised concern among advocates for digital rights that the United States may be undermining its role in promoting an open and free internet that is not controlled by individual countries.

Previous legislative efforts had been more focused on a ban, including a bill that passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March 2023, granting a president the authority to ban the platform. (Courts had previously stopped a Trump administration effort to do this while it was trying to force a sale.)

In January 2023, Senator Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, introduced a bill to ban TikTok for all Americans after pushing for a measure, which passed in December 2022 as part of a spending package, that banned TikTok on devices issued by the federal government.

The most current proposal has been tied to efforts to deliver aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. The bill would require ByteDance to sell to an approved buyer, while extending the deadline for a sale from the original six months.

The Biden administration supports the legislation.

President Biden has said that he would sign into law legislation directed at getting ByteDance to sell TikTok.

The Biden administration has wanted TikTok’s Chinese owner to sell the app since last year, according to the company. TikTok has been in yearslong, confidential talks with the administration’s review panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, to address the government’s questions about ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government and the handling of user data.

TikTok said that it submitted a 90-page proposal in 2022 detailing how it planned to operate in the United States while addressing national security concerns.

The Justice Department has also been investigating TikTok’s surveillance of American journalists, according to three people familiar with the matter. ByteDance said in December 2022 that its employees had inappropriately obtained the data of two U.S. TikTok users who were reporters and a few of their associates.

Despite the administration’s concerns, Mr. Biden’s re-election campaign made a debut on the app during the Super Bowl. The short but lighthearted video, which saw Mr. Biden dodging questions from an offscreen inquisitor, underscored his attempts to rebuild his support among young voters.

Since then, his campaign has shared dozens of videos on the platform.

A First Amendment challenge is likely.

Most of the existing TikTok bans have been put in place by governments and universities that have the power to keep an app off devices or networks that they own and operate.

A broader, government-imposed ban that blocks Americans from using the app could face legal challenges on First Amendment grounds, said Caitlin Chin, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. After all, large numbers of Americans, including elected officials and major news organizations like The New York Times and The Washington Post, now produce videos on TikTok. It is a place where users share artwork, information and opinions about political topics like abortion rights.

First Amendment experts have said that justifying a ban would be a high bar for the government to clear.

Will TikTok be removed from my phone?

The exact mechanism for banning an app from privately owned phones is unclear. Montana’s effort to ban TikTok sought to fine the company and app stores if residents downloaded or used TikTok. Congressional proposals have taken a similar approach.

Apple and other companies that operate app stores have the ability to block downloads of apps that no longer work. They also ban apps that carry inappropriate or illegal content, said Justin Cappos, a professor at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering.

They also have the ability to remove apps installed on a user’s phone. “That usually doesn’t happen,” he said.

What has TikTok’s response been?

TikTok has referred to the bans as “political theater” and criticized lawmakers for attempting to censor Americans. In March, it urged users in a pop-up message to call lawmakers to oppose a TikTok ban. Some Capitol Hill offices said they have been flooded with calls.

The company has also engaged in a lobbying push to promote the plan it submitted to the government to address national security concerns.

Share This Article
Leave a comment

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *