U.S. House passes TikTok divest-or-ban measure, links it to foreign aid legislation

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21st April 2024 – (Washington) The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Saturday that could lead to a nationwide ban on TikTok unless its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, divests the popular video-sharing app. The bill, which is now poised for a Senate vote as early as Tuesday, is part of a broader foreign aid package supporting Ukraine and Israel, highlighting the geopolitical importance of the legislation.

The urgency of the situation is underscored by President Biden’s backing of the bill, signalling a swift trajectory towards enactment. This development marks a critical juncture in U.S. digital policy, as it would be the first instance of the government potentially shutting down a major social media platform—a scenario that could spawn extensive legal challenges.

TikTok, which boasts 170 million monthly American users, has vehemently opposed the bill. TikTok spokesperson Alex Haurek criticized the legislative strategy, stating, “It is unfortunate that the House of Representatives is using the cover of important foreign and humanitarian assistance to once again jam through a ban bill that would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans.”

The backdrop to this legislative push is fraught with national security concerns. U.S. officials worry that the Chinese government could exploit TikTok to disseminate propaganda or conduct surveillance, although these threats remain speculative as there has been no concrete evidence linking TikTok with such activities directly. Despite TikTok’s assurances of a robust data privacy firewall between its U.S. operations and its Beijing headquarters, scepticism persists regarding the integrity of U.S. user data.

The bill extends the deadline for TikTok to secure a buyer up to a year, a modification from the original six-month timeframe, addressing concerns from some senators about the feasibility of such a sale. However, this has led to significant uncertainty about what potential buyers would actually be acquiring, given that TikTok’s critical algorithm remains under the control of ByteDance, which is subject to China’s stringent export controls.

James Lewis, director of the technology and public-policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, highlighted the complexities of the situation: “The Chinese said very firmly this month at senior levels that they won’t let the algorithm be sold and without it, it’s an empty deal.”

The potential sale of TikTok also raises substantial antitrust issues, especially if one of the tech giants from Silicon Valley were to show interest. Given the immense popularity and valuation of TikTok, any acquisition would likely face intense scrutiny from U.S. antitrust regulators, who are increasingly wary of deals that could further consolidate power within the tech industry.