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Will Congress Ban TikTok? Here’s What’s Going On

If you’re one of the more than 150 million Americans who use TikTok, you may have heard that Congress is considering a bill that could result in the incredibly popular app being banned.

The bill passed the House of Representatives overwhelmingly on Wednesday, and it will now move to the Senate. The Biden administration support it. President Biden said last week he’ll sign it if it makes it to his desk, and the Justice Department briefed lawmakers this week about how China — through the Chinese company ByteDance, which owns TikTok — may be using the app to influence U.S. elections. A Biden administration spokesperson suggested to Rolling Stone that foreign powers can use the app to influence “Americans’ views and beliefs.”

TikTok’s meteoric rise has made it a ubiquitous force within the digital ecosystem, and the bill currently in front of Congress could have sweeping ramifications for users throughout the country — whether you’re a lurker, frequent poster, small business owner, seasoned content creator, or someone whose friends keep spamming you with links because you refuse to download the app.

Here are answers to some of your most burning questions about the potential ban:

What is the TikTok bill, and what is it proposing?

The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed the Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act. The bill would require TikTok to sever itself completely from its Chinese parent company ByteDance or face a potential ban from mobile app stores and web-hosting services.

The bill would also create a process through which the president can designate certain social media applications with ties to foreign governments as a national security risk.

The legislation was introduced by Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.). Gallagher, the chairman of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, said in a Tuesday statement that he has one message for TikTok, which is to “break up with the Chinese Communist Party or lose access to your American users.”

Could TikTok actually get banned in the U.S.?

Under the Constitution’s First Amendment, Congress cannot outright ban the application in the U.S. without first proving that it poses an imminent national security risk. Lawmakers acknowledge this and contend that the proposed legislation is not an outright ban, but rather a narrow expansion of presidential authority to better regulate the influence of foreign governments in the tech sector.

However, if passed, the bill could functionally mean the end of TikTok in the U.S. The company would either have to separate itself from ByteDance — likely through a sale — or be blocked from app stores and web-hosting services. It’s not a direct ban, but rather the creation of a set of conditions that would make it nearly impossible for TikTok to continue operating in the U.S.

Some legal experts believe this would still be unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union and several other leading technology and civil rights groups issued a letter to Congress warning that the law would “trample on the constitutional right to freedom of speech of millions of people in the United States. TikTok is home to massive amounts of protected speech and association: It enables its users to discuss their opinions, share their hobbies, make art, and access news from down the street and around the world. Jeopardizing access to the platform jeopardizes access to free expression.”

Why are lawmakers concerned about TikTok? 

The bill’s introduction was prompted by longstanding concerns that TikTok, through its Chinese parent company ByteDance, could be used to conduct surveillance on Americans by gathering and exploiting user data.

It’s not the first attempt Congress has made at banning the app. In December 2022, lawmakers introduced the Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act, or the ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act — which would have prohibited “all transactions from any social media company in, or under the influence of, China, Russia, and several other foreign countries of concern.”

In August 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order intended to ban American companies from engaging in business with ByteDance. Following a protracted legal battle between the Trump administration and ByteDance, the order was ultimately overturned by President Joe Biden.

The federal government, as well as over half of America’s 50 states, have implemented some form of ban on the use of TikTok on devices issued to government employees or contractors, and even some public universities have restricted the apps’ use on campus WiFi.

On Tuesday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the Justice Department, and the FBI briefed congressional lawmakers about their assessment of the security risks posed by TikTok. In its annual threat assessment, the ODNI wrote that “China is demonstrating a higher degree of sophistication in its influence activity, including experimenting with generative AI. TikTok accounts run by a PRC propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022.”

Not everyone is on board with the ban, however. “I’m voting NO on the TikTok forced sale bill,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on Wednesday. “This bill was incredibly rushed, from committee to vote in 4 days, with little explanation. There are serious antitrust and privacy questions here, and any national security concerns should be laid out to the public prior to a vote.”

How does Biden feel about a potential TikTok ban?

President Joe Biden stated last week that if Congress manages to pass the bill, he would sign it.

“If they pass it, I’ll sign it,” Biden said. While the bill looks primed to breeze through a House vote, it may be stalled in the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has yet to commit to bringing it to a floor vote.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said last week that the Biden administration doesn’t “see this as banning these apps — that’s not what this is,” but rather “ensuring that their ownership isn’t in the hands of those who may do us harm.”

Jean-Pierre’s statement echoes a broader trend among Biden administration officials: the belief that TikTok presents an opportunity for a foreign government to manipulate the views of Americans. A spokesperson for Biden’s National Security Council tells Rolling Stone the TikTok bill “is an important and welcome step in ongoing efforts to address the threat posed by certain technology services operating in the United States that put at risk Americans’ personal information and our broader national security, including through the manipulation by foreign powers of Americans’ views and beliefs.”

The Biden administration’s support for the bill comes as pro-Palestine content has flourished on the app, and the president faces increasing pressure to cut off military aid to Israel.

Where does Trump currently stand on a TikTok ban (and why did he change positions)?

During his administration, Donald Trump was all in on a TikTok ban. In August 2020 he issued several executive orders commanding the full divestment of the app from ByteDance, and attempting to block any American entities from conducting business with the company. In response, TikTok sued the Trump administration, arguing that the administration had not provided sufficient proof that the app constituted a national security threat worthy of a ban. Trump’s efforts were ultimately overturned by President Joe Biden.

Now Trump is singing a different tune. On Monday, the former president told CNBC that he wasn’t that enthusiastic about the bill currently before Congress. “There’s a lot of good and a lot of bad with TikTok,” he said. “But the thing I don’t like is, without TikTok you can make Facebook bigger — and I consider Facebook to be the enemy of the people along with a lot of the media.”

“But do you believe that TikTok is a national security threat or not?” host Andrew Ross Sorkin interjected. “I do believe that,” Trump clarified. “But we also have to have a problem with [others]. You have to have a problem with Facebook and lots of other companies too […] If you look at some of our American companies — when you talk about highly sophisticated companies — that you think are American, they’re not so American. They deal in China, and if China wants anything from them they will give it, so that’s a national security risk also.”

The former president’s flip-flopping could have several explanations. He’s notorious for aligning with the advice of the last person to speak to him, and earlier this month it was reported that Trump had mended his relationship with the Club for Growth, a prominent conservative nonprofit he had feuded with in recent years. “We’re back in love, we’re deeply in love,” Trump gushed at a recent event according to Politico.

Jeff Yass, one of Club for Growth’s largest donors, owns about a 15 percent stake in ByteDance through his investment company. Former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has also become a lead advocate for Congress opposing a TikTok ban on behalf of the Club for Growth, Politico reports. The theory that Trump’s sudden support for TikTok might be fueled by his relationship with Yass and the Club for Growth is even gaining traction among his most extreme supporters, with Steve Bannon hinting at the connection during his Monday broadcast. “Jeff Yass and Kellyanne Conway got to him — that’s no spin,” one senior GOP aide told Politico.

The former president, however, denies Yass is influencing his position, telling CNBC on Monday that the billionaire “never mentioned TikTok” during their recent meeting at a Club for Growth retreat.

Another reason Trump, the presumptive 2024 GOP nominee, has reversed course seems to be rooted in chipping away at the base of support for President Biden, who pledged recently to sign the anti-TikTok bill. This year, Trump has been shown private polling data showing that many young and Gen Z voters would rebel against political candidates who commit to taking away their incredibly popular app, a source with direct knowledge of the matter and another person briefed on it tell Rolling Stone.

Some of Trump’s advisers believe that taking a softer approach to TikTok, while allowing Biden to be the would-be TikTok destroyer, could potentially help him somewhat with younger voters, who have been telling pollsters for months just how little they think of Biden.

In some recent private discussions, the two sources say, Trump has agreed that going hard against TikTok could hurt Biden with young demographics, and has on occasion joked that he knows how they feel because, according to the person with direct knowledge of the matter, of what it was like when “they took Twitter away from me.”

What is TikTok doing about all this?

In direct response to the proposed bill, TikTok launched a tool to connect users with their congressional offices. “Congress is planning a total ban of TikTok,” the landing page says. “Speak up now — before your government strips 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression.”

As a result, lawmakers’ offices were inundated with phone calls, many from teenagers furious that their favorite app might be banned. One House Republican aide described the experience to Rolling Stone as a “nonstop” barrage of phone calls and messages this week from “shrieking teens” demanding that lawmakers pull the anti-TikTok bill.

But while TikTok is currently on the offensive, they’ve been attempting to assuage lawmakers’ concerns about data security for some time now. In March 2022, the app launched a partnership with Oracle to take over the app’s domestic storage of user data. “As of July 2022, all new U.S. user data is stored automatically in Oracle’s U.S. Cloud infrastructure, and access is managed exclusively by the TikTok US Data Security team,” the company says on its data security fact sheet. “To help ensure that there is no unauthorized access to our systems, such as no ‘backdoors’ or data leakage, Oracle and a third-party source code inspector will work to ensure that everything is performing as intended.”

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