Is Congress Really About to Ban TikTok?

TikTok : Illustration
Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

Last week, TikTok users opened the app to find a pop-up message urging them to call Congress and ask their representatives to stop a shutdown of the app. The bill in question, which was passed by the House less than a week later, is the latest in a long series of efforts from policymakers to address security concerns about the Chinese-owned app. In the past year and a half, while federal entities go back and forth about the prospect of a nationwide ban, at least 33 U.S. states have limited the use of TikTok in some capacity. Bans have also been introduced in cities, government-affiliated workplaces, and college campuses.

The idea of a TikTok ban has roots in the Trump administration, but it’s become a bipartisan issue as more politicians ring the alarm about TikTok’s murky relationship with its parent company, ByteDance, and the Chinese government. While it may seem like overblown paranoia about a popular Gen-Z app that elderly lawmakers just don’t understand, some of their concerns are legitimate. Still, banning TikTok from app stores probably wouldn’t do much to keep American data safe. Here’s everything to know.


Why ban TikTok?

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese internet company based in Beijing. Therefore, it’s subject to a series of security laws that allow the Chinese Communist Party to compel a company to hand over data. American lawmakers are worried that the Chinese government will pressure ByteDance to share U.S. data gathered on TikTok, which the CCP could potentially use to blackmail American journalists and politicians. There’s concern that the CCP can use TikTok’s algorithm — and whatever data they’ve gathered to model community behavior in the U.S. — to censor videos, disseminate misinformation, or otherwise influence the feeds of American citizens.

The idea of addressing these issues with a ban first came up in 2020, when then-President Trump tried to force ByteDance’s hand by proposing an ultimatum: ByteDance could sell the app to an American company, or it would be removed from U.S. app stores. At one point, the administration worked out a deal to sell TikTok to an American software company, Oracle, but the deal eventually fell through and Trump’s ban was struck down by a federal court. By the time Biden came to office, he rolled back Trump’s executive order and began private negotiations with TikTok and its parent company.

While it started mostly as a hot-button topic for conservative politicians, concerns about TikTok’s relationship with mainland China have reached Democrats too. Earlier in 2023, Colorado senator Michael Bennet wrote a letter urging Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores. It’s not just policy-makers: FCC commissioner Brendan Carr and FBI director Christopher Wray have both expressed major security concerns about TikTok.

A small minority of lawmakers have spoken out against prospective TikTok bans, including New York congressman Jamaal Bowman, who’s likened the security concerns to a “red scare” and argued the panic is a result of Republican fearmongering and xenophobia.

Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, a handful of candidates have worked TikTok security into their platforms, with varying degrees of conviction. During a September town hall, Vivek Ramaswamy likened TikTok to “digital fentanyl from China” but then joined the platform five days later. (Biden’s campaign is also on TikTok despite his administration’s concerns.) During a GOP debate later that month, Nikki Haley called TikTok “one of the most dangerous social-media assets that we could have.” At the Republican presidential-primary debate in December, Haley made the outlandish claim that “for every 30 minutes that someone watches TikTok every day, they become 17 percent more antisemitic, more pro-Hamas.”

Trump, meanwhile, seems to have reversed course this time around — on Thursday, he expressed concern about a possible TikTok ban, writing on Truth Social that getting rid of TikTok might “double business” for Facebook, which he apparently does not want.


Where is TikTok banned?

College campuses, states, and even a few cities have “banned” TikTok in some capacity, though only in relation to their own devices and networks. At least 33 states have banned the app from state-owned devices and networks, and several dozen colleges and universities have made it unavailable on campus Wi-Fi networks. Cities including Charlotte, Baltimore, Denver, and New York City have prohibited local government employees from using the app on their work phones. In May, the governor of Montana tried to ban the app on personal devices statewide, but TikTok filed a lawsuit and a federal judge blocked the bill, arguing that it “oversteps state power” and “likely violates the First Amendment.” At the end of 2022, Biden signed off on a bill prohibiting TikTok usage on devices issued by the federal government. Still, as things stand right now, students and government employees — not to mention everyone else — can continue to use TikTok on their personal devices or networks.

In 2022, longtime anti-TikTok crusader Marco Rubio introduced a bipartisan bill that would empower Biden to block all U.S. transactions with TikTok and ByteDance. It’s similar to the language Trump used when he tried to ban TikTok in 2020 — though the specific “transactions” aren’t defined, it would probably bar Apple and Google from offering new downloads or updates in their app stores, eventually rendering the app unusable. Rubio’s bill failed to gain momentum, and since then, two other proposals, one led by Josh Hawley and another by Senator Mark Warner, have outlined similar policies. And then there’s the bill currently gaining momentum in Congress — the one that prompted the in-app message and that the House of Representatives approved this week — which would require TikTok to divest from ByteDance within six months or face being removed from app stores.


Would a national ban even work?

Aynne Kokas, a media-studies professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in tech relations between the U.S. and China, told us last year that the likelihood of a national TikTok ban’s passing was “extremely low.” But earlier this month, she said this new bill does stand a chance since it isn’t proposing an absolute ban, just mandating that the app divest from ByteDance. She said the probability that TikTok will manage to maneuver a divestment, though, is “unlikely.”

If any of this legislation somehow does make it past Biden’s desk, Kokas says, it would most likely have to be enforced by Google and Apple, who could make updating and downloading the app much more difficult. (Although, she pointed out, it’s not guaranteed that both companies would cooperate; Apple has a significant investment in the Chinese market.) The Montana bill is not the only ban that has faced legal challenges — Texas’s ordinance to take TikTok off state devices and networks was challenged by First Amendment lawyers but upheld by a federal judge.

There’s also a bigger problem: TikTok isn’t the only company wielding a massive amount of user data. TikTok’s algorithm isn’t any more opaque than Meta’s, Twitter’s, or Amazon’s, and it isn’t gathering much more data than what these American platforms mine from their users. While those platforms can’t be compelled to share that data with government officials, they can largely do whatever they want with it. “In the U.S., it’s quite a free-for-all in terms of what companies can gather and how they can use it,” Kokas said, adding that, by specifically targeting ByteDance, lawmakers “circumvent the much more politically thorny issue of how to regulate data-gathering in the U.S. more broadly.” Even as politicians rush to crack down on TikTok, regulations for domestic tech companies are noticeably lax. In fact, a TikTok ban is pretty ideal for Silicon Valley — it wouldn’t touch the companies’ own data-collection practices, and TikTok’s market share would be up for grabs.


What does TikTok have to say about all this?

TikTok has repeatedly denied ever passing American user data along to the Chinese government. Representatives have admitted that the app used to occasionally censor videos. At a 2022 Senate hearing, TikTok’s interim chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, testified that the app doesn’t share data with the Chinese government but wouldn’t commit to cutting off Chinese employees’ access to American data.

But a lot of these issues hinge on TikTok’s relationship not with the Chinese government but with its Chinese parent company. There’s a fair amount of evidence suggesting ByteDance employees can access U.S. user data in some capacity. It also seems like TikTok’s algorithm is influenced by the Chinese government’s agenda — the app has been known to censor videos that talked about protests in Hong Kong, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.


Just how hostile have things gotten?

TikTok has been working with the Biden administration on and off to try and assure lawmakers that they’re keeping American TikTokers insulated from Chinese meddling. For the past two years, the company has been in confidential negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States.

In 2022, TikTok submitted a plan called “Project Texas,” which, in addition to moving data to U.S.-based servers, proposed measures like procuring a new security team based in the U.S., giving the American government and the software company Oracle oversight of the app’s algorithm, and allowing CFIUS to do regular security audits.

Experts quickly poked holes in the reported details of Project Texas, and after months of silence from the Biden administration — during which TikTok went on a PR offensive in Washington, D.C. — CFIUS reportedly rejected the proposal and seemed poised to commit to an ultimatum: Divest or get banned. In March 2023, the White House threw its support behind a now-defunct bill that was gaining momentum in the Senate, which targeted TikTok by allowing the Commerce Department to take action against technology companies linked to a foreign adversary.

Around this time, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, spent a tense five hours testifying in front of a House committee about a handful of TikTok concerns, chief among them its ties with the CCP. Based on reports from the hearing, lawmakers from both parties came out swinging and spent a lot of time interrupting Chew to tell him just how dangerous they believed his app was. (A spokeswoman for TikTok said the hearing was “dominated by political grandstanding.”) At one point, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton accused the CEO of having personal affiliations with the CCP, despite Chew’s repeated statements that he is Singaporean, not Chinese.

During the hearing, Chew acknowledged that he reports directly to ByteDance’s chief executive and some TikTok employees have stock options with ByteDance. But he insisted the rejected Project Texas plan would have sufficiently protected American data and argued that banning TikTok would stifle free expression.


So what happens next?

Though Chew’s testimony seemed to indicate just how gravely concerned lawmakers were, policies targeting TikTok faltered in the following months. The bill the White House had supported lost momentum, and in the fall, CFIUS reportedly went back to the negotiating table with ByteDance attorneys. It’s not clear what, if anything, emerged from those talks, but recent events suggest they didn’t get far. On March 7, the House’s special China-focused committee voted 50-0 to approve a new bipartisan bill that requires ByteDance to sell TikTok in 165 days. If the app doesn’t divest, it will be illegal for app-store operators like Apple and Google to make it available for download.

TikTok responded to the bill by pushing a message through the app, which prompted users to enter their Zip Codes and provided the names of their local congressional districts and representatives. Some people reportedly got push notifications that said, “TikTok is at risk of being shut down in the US. Call your representative now.” Congressional aides say their offices have been inundated with calls, and some are so overwhelmed they have temporarily turned off their phones. Meanwhile, policy-makers hit back at TikTok, with one congressman calling the rollout a “massive propaganda campaign” that incorrectly represents the bill as a ban.

Still, TikTok-supporting constituents were not enough to sway the House of Representatives, and less than a week later, the body voted overwhelmingly to pass the new measure. Per the Washington Post, Biden’s support for TikTok security, combined with concerns over the app’s potential influence on how the Israel-Hamas conflict is covered, has pushed lawmakers to move faster.

Representatives also mentioned a classified hearing with national security officials that was a “call to action,” though no one has revealed what was discussed. Responding to the news, a TikTok representative told the Post, “The bill was jammed through for one reason: It’s a ban.”

Senators do not seem nearly as jazzed about this bill as the House was, and it’s unclear whether they will vote on it any time soon. As for Biden? Though the White House press secretary initially told AP News this legislation “still needs some work” for the president to endorse it, Biden himself told reporters a few days later that he plans to sign it if it makes it through Congress. Looks like we’ll just have to wait until it gets to his desk to find out.

Is Congress Really About to Ban TikTok?