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House approves sell-or-be-banned TikTok measure, attaching it to foreign aid bill

The latest effort in Congress to force TikTok to be sold is the most serious threat yet to the app's future in the U.S.
Michael Dwyer
The latest effort in Congress to force TikTok to be sold is the most serious threat yet to the app's future in the U.S.

Updated April 20, 2024 at 2:19 PM ET

TikTok is now hurtling toward what is perhaps its biggest threat yet in the U.S.

The House on Saturday passed legislation that could trigger a nationwide ban of TikTok if its Chinese owner does not sell the video app. The Senate could vote on the bill as soon as Tuesday.

While lawmakers in the House advanced a similar bill last month, this effort is different for two reasons: It is attached to a sweeping foreign aid bill providing support for Ukraine and Israel. And it addresses concerns from some members of the Senate by extending the deadline for TikTok to find a buyer.

President Biden supports the effort. That means TikTok being forced to sell, or face a possible ban, is on the fast-track to becoming law.

It would mark the first time ever 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 against the hugely popular service.

"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," said TikTok spokesman Alex Haurek.

Fears over propaganda, spying, fuel TikTok crackdown

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

Those concerns remain largely hypothetical.

TikTok is owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, yet there is no publicly available evidence that government officials have ever influenced what Americans see on the app, nor any proof that officials in China have spied on U.S. citizens through TikTok.

TikTok says it has built a firewall between its headquarters in Los Angeles and its parent company in Beijing, but some reportsindicate U.S. user data does still move between the two.

While there has been no evidence made public that Chinese government officials have accessed Americans' information through TikTok, the idea that China has the theoretical ability to weaponize an app used by half of America has been enough to set off an all-out crackdown.

Questions about exactly what a buyer would be getting

Under the bill just passed by the House, TikTok would be given up to a year to find a company, or group of investors, to acquire it. That extends the timeline from the six-month window the app was given in the original bill the House passed last month, which some Senators said was too short.

But that has raised a critical question among TikTok experts: What exactly would they be buying?

TikTok's algorithm, the secret sauce of the app, 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 blessing of the Chinese government.

James Lewis, director of the technology and public-policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that is a non-starter for Beijing.

"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," Lewis told NPR.

Then there is the hurdle of the pricetag itself.

Given that 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 largest tech companies.

It's not known exactly how much TikTok is worth, but analysts peg its privately-owned parent company, ByteDance, at around $225 billion. TikTok is by far the company's most successful service.

If a Silicon Valley giant attempted to take over TikTok, that would almost certainly attract scrutiny from antitrust enforcers in Washington, who have grown increasingly skeptical of deals that increase the reach of already-massive tech firms.

Lewis, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is doubtful the latest push will result in ByteDance letting go of TikTok. But, he noted, it does forestall the issue until after the November presidential election:

"The bill buys time to figure out a real solution, while putting space between passage and the election."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.