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  4. Is the US really closer to banning TikTok? Yes. And, also: No.

Is the US really closer to banning TikTok? Yes. And, also: No.

Peter Kafka   

Is the US really closer to banning TikTok? Yes. And, also: No.
  • The Senate passed a bill that contains a TikTok ban, and President Biden signed it Wednesday.
  • But that doesn't mean TikTok will be banned in the US anytime soon. TikTok promises a legal fight.

The US Senate passed a foreign-aid bill late Tuesday that contains a measure that would ban TikTok. President Joe Biden signed it on Wednesday.

Does that mean TikTok is getting closer to being banned in the US?

Absolutely.

Will TikTok get banned in the US anytime soon?

No.

Even though Biden signed the bill Wednesday, TikTok won't go anywhere immediately.

At the very earliest, the ban wouldn't go into effect until nine months now that the bill is signed — meaning 2025. But even that is unlikely to happen.

Let's explain.

I remember reading about a maybe-TikTok-ban bill last month. Has something changed?

A little bit.

In March, the House passed a bill requiring ByteDance, TikTok's Chinese owner, to sell the US operations of TikTok to someone who isn't based in a "foreign adversary" country; if not, the app would effectively be banned in the US.

Since then, the bill's sponsors made two changes: The first and most important one was bundling the bill along with measures calling for US aid to Ukraine and Israel. While forcing TikTok to sell or leave has had mixed political support, the aid packages had been a priority for much of Congress. Combining all three things meant the TikTok bill would likely be approved as part of the package deal.

The language around the proposed ban has also been tweaked. Instead of requiring ByteDance to sell off its US operations in six months, the company now has nine months to get a deal done. And the bill also gives a US president the power to extend that new deadline by another three months if there's a deal in the works.

So you're saying ByteDance really has a year to sell TikTok to a different owner?

Yes. But also, no.

Now that Biden has signed the bill, that nine-months-to-one-year countdown starts. Except that ByteDance has already said it will challenge the law in court, and will presumably seek an injunction — putting the entire thing on pause. And a court battle could take a very long time.

For reference: In May 2023, Montana lawmakers passed their own TikTok-ban bill; in November, a federal judge blocked the measure. That case is working its way to federal appeals court.

And indeed, TikTok released a statement Wednesday saying that it will see the US in court.

"This unconstitutional law is a TikTok ban, and we will challenge it in court. We believe the facts and the law are clearly on our side, and we will ultimately prevail," TikTok CEO Shou Chew said in a statement. "The fact is, we have invested billions of dollars to keep US data safe and our platform free from outside influence and manipulation. This ban would devastate 7 million businesses and silence 170 million Americans."

OK. But the bill has passed, and what if it does hold up in court? What happens then? Does TikTok disappear from my phone?

No.

If ByteDance can't or won't find a buyer for US TikTok, the bill requires Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores — something they have practice doing in other countries. But that wouldn't shut down TikTok in the US itself — it would just make it very difficult for the app to add more US-based users.

The bill would also prohibit US-based internet companies from helping TikTok maintain or update the service. So TikTok could continue to operate in the US, but its owner would have a harder time keeping it going and growing.

I remember hearing about people who wanted to buy TikTok to keep it going in the US. What's going on with that?

Good question. The first thing to resolve is whether China would actually allow ByteDance to sell one of the country's biggest internet successes at metaphorical gunpoint. Then there are plenty of technical questions about how a sale would work and how TikTok could function if cleaved off from its main owner.

In any case, the most prominent would-be buyer for US TikTok, so far, is Steve Mnuchin, the former treasury secretary from the Trump administration. But Mnuchin himself doesn't have the money for the deal. More important, he's reportedly telling investors that he would essentially rebuild TikTok's vaunted algorithm himself, which makes some observers skeptical about its chance of success.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024 — This story has been updated with news of the US Senate's passage of the bill that includes the TikTok ban, President Joe Biden's Wednesday signing of the bill, and a statement from TikTok CEO Shou Chew.


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