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US House Bill Threatens TikTok Ban

US capitol building

Ashley Snyder

On 13 March, the US House of Representatives passed a bill forcing a sale of the social media app TikTok. The bill, however, has the potential to ban TikTok should a sale not go through in the name of protecting national security from threats imposed by China.

Some Representatives’ offices received hundreds of calls for hours from panicked TikTok users. One staffer said, “It was so bad we had to turn the phones off”. At one point, when a staffer asked for a caller’s name to record their message, the caller asked to leave their comment without giving their name to protect their information. After explaining to the caller that protecting private information was the entire point of the bill they were calling about, the staffer said they could “see the lightbulb go off through the phone”.

The bill gives ByteDance six months to divest

The aim of the bill is to have TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, sell its control of the app to a new owner. The bill gives ByteDance six months to divest, at which point if ByteDance has still not divested, TikTok would be banned from US app stores.

Additionally, the bill has only made it through the House of Representatives. The bill still needs to pass the Senate before it has the potential to be signed into law by the President. The US President, Joe Biden, has said that he would sign the bill into law should it reach his desk.

Some Representatives use TikTok to reach more of their constituents

The bill passed the House with 352 Representatives voting “Yes” against only 65 voting “No”, This shows a clear indication that many Representatives think that the bill is a good solution to help protect US national security. Some voters felt deceived by their Representatives’ support of the bill because some Representatives use TikTok to reach more of their constituents and to help boost their campaigns, including President Biden.

One Representative, Rep. Jeff Jackson, has amassed a following of more than two million people on the platform. After voting in favour of the bill, his comment sections were flooded with criticism. Jackson took to TikTok to explain. “I don’t think TikTok is going to be banned”, Jackson said. “TikTok may be sold to another company, but it will continue to operate. The bill that just passed the House was about telling TikTok they have to sell to another company. […] The best-case scenario is that TikTok continues to operate but is no longer owned – and potentially controlled – by an adversarial government. That’s exactly what the legislation does”.

Jackson’s views seem to be the general consensus; while many Representatives don’t love the idea of threatening a ban, most think that the possibility of actually reaching that stage is extremely small, hence the widespread support.

The implementation of the bill would “take billions of dollars out of the pockets of creators and small businesses”

After the news broke, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew posted a video on TikTok saying that the implementation of the bill would “take billions of dollars out of the pockets of creators and small businesses”, adding “it will also put more than 300,000 American jobs at risk and take away your TikTok”. The day following the passing of the bill, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the vote “runs contrary to the principles of fair competition and justice”. Adding to Wenbin’s comment, Chinese commerce ministry spokesperson He Yadong said that China “would take all necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests”.

As for whether China poses a threat through TikTok, the US intelligence community seems pretty convinced. The FBI has claimed that the Chinese state has direct ties to ByteDance, which could allow the Chinese government to manipulate content to spread propaganda. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence mentioned in their Annual Threat Assessment that the Chinese government has attempted to influence US elections; “TikTok accounts run by a PRC [People’s Republic of China] propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the US midterm election cycle in 2022”.

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also commented on the threat from China. He stated “there’s no way that the Chinese [government] would ever let a US company own something like [TikTok] in China”, meaning that the US should be concerned about what TikTok may be doing with US citizens’ data.

Apps such as Instagram and YouTube benefited

There aren’t many case studies as to what life would look like in the US if TikTok were to be banned. India did, however, ban TikTok in 2020, resulting from clashes at the border of India and China. TikTok was banned overnight, and while several contemporary versions of TikTok emerged, most were unsuccessful and apps such as Instagram and YouTube benefited with Reels and Shorts respectively.

The bill needs to pass through the Senate and then be signed by the President. Should either of those things not happen, however, it will be some time before TikTok has to worry about being banned in the US. But as Rep. Greg Landsman noted, “It’s really a sell TikTok, not ban TikTok bill”. So while the Senate debates the bill, potential buyers will most likely begin to emerge; companies such as Amazon, Meta, and Microsoft have already shown interest, as well as Kevin O’Leary, best known for his role on the TV show Shark Tank.

James Snyder

Featured image courtesy of Andy Feliciotti via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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