TikTok ban gets closer after House vote, but long legal battle awaits

The US House is digging in – it again voted to pass legislation that would ban TikTok in the country if its China-based owner doesn’t sell its stake. However, it’s already clear that TikTok will not go down without a ferocious fight.

Before Saturday’s vote, House Republicans included the issue of TikTok as part of a larger foreign aid package. Congressional support of Ukraine and Taiwan is a priority for President Joe Biden so, unsurprisingly, the Democrats didn’t mind.

To be clear, the House already passed a standalone ultimatum to TikTok back in March. Progress of the bill stalled in the US Senate, however, so now, the measure was tied to a bipartisan foreign aid deal. That means the bill could now move faster through Congress.

The bill, called The 21st Century Peace through Strength Act was also modified, and a six-month deadline for ByteDance, TikTok’s owner, to either sell the app or face the ban in the US, has been lengthened to nine months.

Three extra months could be added if a sale is in progress. But actual timelines might not even matter as TikTok has again reiterated it’s not planning to sit still and give in.

On the contrary, the company has vowed to go to court and argue that the law, if it passes, would deprive millions of American users of their First Amendment rights. Whatever tools TikTok chooses, the battle is certain to last years.

A tremendously quick journey

The bill says that ByteDance, TikTok’s owner, must divest the US assets of the short-video app, boasting around 170 million users in the US alone, or face a ban. If ByteDance declines to obey, the app store providers will stop carrying the platform.

The bill’s backers say swift action is needed because TikTok poses a threat to US national security by allegedly spreading misinformation or harnessing user data to spy on Americans.

The House voted 360-58 to approve the new legislation while also authorizing additional sanctions on Russia and Iran, and the fact that it’s the election year certainly helped – no one wants to be seen as soft on China or indeed any US adversary.

The Senate could now take the matter up on Tuesday, and President Biden already said in March he would sign the TikTok bill after its passing by Congress.

“I urge the Senate to quickly send this package to my desk,” Biden’s official account on X/Twitter posted late on Saturday, even though in his statement, the US president did not mention TikTok.

The bill’s quick journey through Congress is even more extraordinary because US lawmakers have traditionally taken a hands-off approach to tech regulation. Again, it helps that there’s widespread bipartisan anxiety specifically about China.

Members of both parties and US intelligence officials worry that China’s government could use TikTok as a tool to boost content favorable to Beijing’s interests or weaponize American users’ data.

There’s no public evidence of such tinkering so far, though, and TikTok denies any ties with the government in Beijing. But ByteDance is actually required to turn over any information to the authorities.

In fact, the Chinese government enacted sweeping laws that require companies to cooperate with state authorities when asked to provide any information on matters relating to national security, and the 2017 Cybersecurity Law requires businesses to store select data in China and grants the government wide-ranging rights to check such data at their discretion.

After TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, a Singaporean, said in 2023 that ByteDance is simply a private company, even Human Rights Watch pointed out that it’s not uncommon for Chinese authorities to forcibly “disappear” business executives for not toeing the ruling Communist party line.

Civic groups up in arms

Still, TikTok definitely has quite a few options on how to tackle the looming threat of a ban and seems confident in staving it off.

True, when TikTok launched a major counter-offensive against the House initiative and enlisted influential users to attack lawmakers with calls of opposition to the bill, the ferocity of the pushback actually angered the members of the House. More of them voted for the measure now than in March.

TikTok Congress CEO Chew
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew in US Congress. Image by Shutterstock.

But history – and the law – seem to favor TikTok. Former US president Donald Trump tried to ban the app through an executive order in 2020 but failed after courts blocked the attempt.

And in November 2023, another judge blocked a Montana state ban on TikTok use after the firm again sued, calling the measure unconstitutional because it infringed on the rights of users and businesses.

Influential organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are supporting TikTok’s right to exist in the US as well.

ACLU’s lawyer Jenna Leventoff said in March: “Just because the bill sponsors claim that banning TikTok isn’t about suppressing speech, there’s no denying that it would do just that. We strongly urge legislators to vote no on this unconstitutional bill.”

Activists also claim that the TikTok bill would infringe on Americans’ First Amendment right to access information, ideas, and media from abroad.

Andrew Harding, VP of Security Strategy at Menlo Security, recently told Cybernews that TikTok, just like other popular social media sites, is swarming with malware, and its users would face even more dangers were the US to ban it.

“Any ban by the US government will only create an artificial demand for TikTok. Federal resources would be better applied to significant threats that harm children and that encourage cybercrime. TikTok is not inherently more harmful than other social media applications,” said Harding.

After all, the biggest concerns around TikTok – user surveillance, data misuse, and harmful content – are far from unique to this particular platform. Just about every major social media app makes a profit by selling user data to third parties, anyway.

Finally, it looks like TikTok is getting ready to more aggressively employ the one argument that could sway US lawmakers – jobs.

According to Bloomberg, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, told the firm’s US staff in a memo that the consequences of the divest-or-ban law would be “devastating” for around seven million small businesses on the platform.

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