President Biden Signs TikTok Ban Bill into Law

President Biden signed legislation on Wednesday mandating the sale of Chinese-owned TikTok within a year. It is the most serious threat yet to the video-streaming app’s future in the U.S., intensifying America’s tech war with China. However, immediate disruption to TikTok is not expected, as legal challenges and obstacles to selling the app are likely to cause delays lasting several months.

The provision requiring ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to divest its stake in the platform within 12 months was discreetly included in a bill providing foreign aid to Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan. This move represents the culmination of Washington’s scrutiny of TikTok over several years due to concerns about potential Chinese government influence.

Despite these concerns, TikTok has experienced tremendous success, emerging as a dominant force in short-form video content and boasting a user base of 170 million Americans, approximately half of the country’s population. Nevertheless, lawmakers and the Biden administration argue that TikTok’s Chinese ownership makes it susceptible to the directives of China’s authoritarian regime.

Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, emphasized that Congress’ action aims to prevent foreign adversaries from engaging in espionage, surveillance, and other malicious activities that could harm Americans and national security. She said, “Congress is not acting to punish ByteDance, TikTok, or any other individual company.”

In response to the law, TikTok CEO Shou Zi posted a video to the platform soon after Biden signed the bill to express confidence in the platform’s legal prospects and assure users that they should not expect disruptions. However, TikTok plans to challenge the law in court, arguing that it infringes on the free speech rights of millions of Americans. “Rest assured, we aren’t going anywhere,” Chew said. “The facts and the Constitution are on our side, and we expect to prevail again.”

If TikTok is not sold within the stipulated timeframe, the law would restrict web-hosting services from supporting the app and require Google and Apple to remove it from their app stores, effectively rendering it unusable. This legislation represents the first instance of the U.S. passing a law with the potential to ban a social media platform, drawing criticism from civil liberties groups and constitutional scholars.

TikTok has vowed to take the Biden administration to court, claiming the law would suppress the free speech of millions of Americans. The sentiment was echoed by Kate Ruane, who runs the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Free Expression Project, who said the law is unconstitutional and a blow to free expression in the U.S. “Congress shouldn’t be in the business of banning platforms,” Ruane said. “They should be working to enact comprehensive privacy legislation that protects our private data no matter where we choose to engage online.”

Selling TikTok won’t be so easy. The process of selling TikTok presents significant challenges, as any potential buyer would require approval from the Chinese government, which has resisted forced sales. Additionally, ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok’s algorithm, a crucial component of its success, complicates potential divestment efforts. Chinese officials have placed content-recommendation algorithms on what is known as an export-control list, meaning the government has additional say over how the technology is ever sold.

The swift passage of the law caught many within TikTok off guard, especially since a similar effort failed to gain traction in the Senate just a month earlier. The legislation gave TikTok a six-month window to find a buyer, which some Senators said was too little time. A new push, this time attaching the divest-or-be-banned provision to foreign aid, fast-tracked the proposal. It mirrors last month’s attempt but extends the sell-by deadline, now giving TikTok nine months to find a buyer, with the option of a three-month extension if a potential acquisition is in play. Lawmakers from both parties have argued that TikTok poses a national security risk to Americans, since the Chinese government could use the app to spy on Americans or influence what U.S. users see on their TikTok feeds, something that has gained new urgency in an election year.

But some have pushed back, including Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts. He said on the Senate floor on Tuesday that there is “no credible evidence” that TikTok presents a real national security threat just because its parent company is based in China. National intelligence laws in China would require ByteDance to hand over data on Americans if authorities there sought it, but TikTok says it has never received such a request.

Markey said concerns about digital security, the mental health of young people, and data privacy should be addressed with comprehensive legislation encompassing the entire tech industry, not just TikTok. “TikTok poses a serious risk to the privacy and mental health of our young people,” Markey said. “But that problem isn’t unique to TikTok and certainly doesn’t justify a TikTok ban,” he said. “American companies are doing the same thing, too.”

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