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Bill to ban TikTok or require its sale passes House : NPR

Congress’ latest efforts to force the sale of TikTok pose the most serious threat yet to the app’s future in the United States.

Michael Dwyer/AP

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Michael Dwyer/AP

Congress’ latest efforts to force the sale of TikTok pose the most serious threat yet to the app’s future in the United States.

Michael Dwyer/AP

TikTok is now heading towards what is perhaps its biggest threat in the United States

The House passed legislation Saturday that could trigger a nationwide ban on TikTok if its Chinese owner doesn’t sell the video app. The Senate could vote on the bill as early as Tuesday.

While House lawmakers introduced a similar bill last month, this effort is different for two reasons: It is linked to a broader foreign aid bill aimed at supporting Ukraine and Israel. And he addresses the concerns of some Senate members by extending the deadline for TikTok to find a buyer.

President Biden supports this effort. This means that TikTok, forced to sell, or face a possible ban, is on the verge of becoming law.

It would be the first time the U.S. government has passed a law that could shut down an entire social media platform, setting the stage for what is expected to be a protracted legal battle.

TikTok condemned the bill as an unconstitutional attack on the hugely popular service.

“It is regrettable that the House of Representatives is using the guise of significant foreign and humanitarian aid to once again pass a ban bill that would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans ” said Alex Haurek, spokesperson for TikTok.

Fears of propaganda and espionage fuel TikTok crackdown

National security officials in Washington fear that the Chinese government could use TikTok to promote propaganda aimed at interfering in U.S. elections, or to surveil some of the 170 million Americans who use the app each month.

These concerns remain largely hypothetical.

TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, but there is no public evidence that government officials have ever influenced what Americans see on the app, nor is there any evidence that Chinese officials have spied on American citizens through TikTok.

TikTok claims to have built a firewall between its headquarters in Los Angeles and its parent company in Beijing, but some reports indicate that US user data still flows between the two.

While no evidence has been made public that Chinese government officials accessed Americans’ information through TikTok, the idea that China has the theoretical ability to weaponize an app used by half of America was enough to trigger total repression.

Questions about what exactly a buyer would get

Under the bill that just passed the House, TikTok would have up to a year to find a company, or group of investors, to acquire it. This extends the six-month deadline for implementation in the original bill passed by the House last month, which some senators said was too short.

But it raised a crucial question among TikTok experts: what exactly would they buy?

TikTok’s algorithm, the app’s secret sauce, is owned by ByteDance. And during the Trump administration’s campaign against TikTok, China added content recommendation algorithms to its export control list, meaning selling the technology would require the Chinese government’s blessing.

James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this is not a solution for Beijing.

“The Chinese have said very strongly this month, at senior levels, that they are not going to let the algorithm be sold and that without it, it’s a meaningless deal,” Lewis told NPR.

Then there’s the hurdle of price itself.

Since TikTok is one of the largest and most popular social media platforms in the world, its value would put it out of reach for all but the biggest tech companies.

It’s unclear exactly how much TikTok is worth, but analysts value its privately held parent company, ByteDance, at around $225 billion. TikTok is by far the company’s most successful service.

If a Silicon Valley giant tried to take over TikTok, it would almost certainly attract the attention of antitrust authorities in Washington, who are increasingly skeptical of deals that increase the reach of already massive tech companies.

Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doubts the latest move will lead ByteDance to abandon TikTok. But, he noted, that delays the issue until after the November presidential election:

“The bill buys time to find a real solution, while leaving space between its passage and the elections.”

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