Is TikTok Going Away Soon? Short Answer: No!

On Wednesday, the president signed into law the $95 billion aid package providing security assistance to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. It had passed the Senate the previous day, and the House on Saturday. It’s a momentous piece of legislation—the most important Congress will pass this year—to reaffirm that America’s still “got it” after allies and adversaries alike had begun to doubt.

But the package also included another bill that’s arguably earned more attention: the Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act. This legislation has been popularized in shorthand as “the TikTok ban.” Many of the app’s 100 million–plus users in the United States are concerned that their treasured app for sharing dance videos, cooking tips, and recitations of Osama bin Laden manifestos could be gone any second now. As cool as such a significant step toward getting human beings to look one another in the eye again would be, though, no such ban is imminent, and a “ban” isn’t the purpose of the legislation. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what this legislation will do and how it came to pass, mostly from the social media accounts of TikTok lobbyists. In the spirit of clearing up the confusion, I will now take questions from myself.

What is Congress’ problem with TikTok?

TikTok’s parent company is ByteDance Ltd., a Chinese technology company. The crux of the security issue among legislators is that the government of the People’s Republic of China, deemed a “foreign adversary country,” has the legal ability to meddle with ByteDance’s affairs. The concerns, then, are that the Chinese government has access to Americans’ private data, and that the Chinese government could be meddling with TikTok’s algorithms to push propaganda, disinformation, and politically disruptive content on American users, while downplaying content that reflects poorly on the Chinese government.

You may have heard politicians over the past few years saying things like TikTok algorithms show Chinese teens content about engineering and science but American teens content about new dances to do atop burning American flags. That’s the root of it. This was once more of a right-wing concern, but many Democrats have come around after years of intelligence briefings supposedly offering proof. After one such briefing in March, for example, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal described the situation as a “gun aimed at Americans’ heads.” Much of that intelligence remains classified, though some lawmakers would like to see that changed.

Got it. So how did this particular legislative ball get rolling?

You may remember hearings from the past couple of years in which the hapless TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew, has gotten absolutely ripped by members of both parties. The appetite to address this alleged threat was powerful.

After months of work behind the scenes with the White House and Justice Department, Reps. Mike Gallagher (a Republican) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (a Democrat)—the leading members of the House’s select China competition committee—released the first version of the Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act on March 5. It prohibited apps “controlled” by foreign adversary countries—spelled out as Russia, North Korea, China, and Iran—from app stores in the United States. However, it would give parent companies of certain apps—like, I don’t know, ByteDance and its app TikTok?—180 days to sell off those properties to buyers in non-“adversary” countries.

Legislators organized this effort smartly. Knowing that TikTok had oodles of money and half of K Street locked down to lobby on its behalf, they horse-traded and organized much of the coalition for this bill together in private, rather than letting the text sit exposed and vulnerable for months at a time before it was ready. Within a couple of days, the bill had passed unanimously out of committee, and on March 13, in spite (or because) of a flood of TikTok users calling Congress warning them away, it passed the House by a 352–65 vote.

Does legislation in Congress usually move that quickly?

The answer is no. Most legislation in Congress doesn’t move, period. This was most unusual. Expect to see the many TikTok lobbyists taking a total L here get fired.

Do the lawmakers who support it call it a “TikTok ban” in shorthand as well?

NO! Lawmakers go to great pains to insist that it’s not a “ban,” and that they would never want to ban anything beloved by hundreds of millions of eligible voters in an election year. The threat of a “prohibition” in the United States, and that ByteDance could lose out on a lot of money, is merely the law’s way to force a sale of the propaganda dance app and put it in the hands of a patriotic American company, such as McDonald’s or Slate.

Wait, though: Didn’t the Senate think the House TikTok bill was kind of lousy?

The Senate thinks all House bills are lousy, and that they’re written by illiterate kindergartners playing out their frustrations with crayons. In this case, it was the Senate Democratic majority that seemed particularly torn about whether to take up the House’s bill, draft its own competing proposal, or do nothing. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, who was the chairwoman of jurisdiction on this particular matter, called for the Senate to take its time to develop a more mature approach beyond “T-minus 180 days, suckers.”

What changed?

When House Speaker Mike Johnson made the decision to put Ukraine aid up for a vote, he wanted to offer a sweetener for the right-wing members of his conference who’d be furious. So in addition to separate votes on Ukraine aid, Israel aid, and Taiwan aid, he had Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul put together the 21st Century Peace Through Strength Act, a grab bag of other popular national security measures. It included bills to seize frozen Russian assets, impose sanctions on fentanyl traffickers, and much more—including the Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act.

The House process was structured so that House members could vote on each of these four bills—the three aid bills, and the 21st Century Peace Through Strength Act—separately. When they all passed, the four would be merged together and sent to the Senate as one bill. This is important. In order to get aid for any of these countries, senators had to vote for the entire package, which included the TikTok bill. The package passed the Senate on Tuesday by a 79–18 vote, and Biden signed it into law on Wednesday.

So Joe Biden didn’t sign the TikTok bill as a stand-alone piece of legislation? It was part of a package?


But would Biden have signed the TikTok bill as a stand-alone piece of legislation?


Is it a killer own to say, Ooh, Joe Biden, you just signed a bill that could ban TikTok, but you still use TikTok, ooh, ooh, hypocrite much?

I don’t think so, no.

Did anything change between the original House TikTok bill and the one that’s now law?

Yes: The time to execute a sale was increased from 180 days to 270 days with the possibility of a one-time extension to complete the sale. That one change, announced in the days leading up to the House vote, was enough for the legislation to earn the endorsement of Cantwell and allow senators to argue that they amended it into an adult piece of legislation.

So Senate egos were successfully managed. But what is ByteDance gonna do?

What does anyone do when Capitol Hill does anything? They sue! A lawsuit should be filed any minute now arguing that the ban violates First Amendment rights. All court cases take one billion years, giving TikTok more time to teach American tweens what quirky memes to perform atop the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while dressed like 9/11.

Should the court-y things not go in ByteDance’s favor, then? They could always push the next Congress, and the next president, to repeal the law. Or they could simply abide by the legislation and sell this popular asset for scads and scads of cash. The other way to abide by the law would be to shut down TikTok in the United States, which Reuters reported ByteDance “prefers” should legal challenges not go their way.

You shouldn’t take ByteDance’s mutterings too seriously this early in the process, though. (And by the way, if they would rather shut ’er down than make billions of dollars in a sale, wouldn’t that suggest that this enterprise isn’t strictly a rational market actor?)

If TikTok’s possible American exit upsets you, just remember: There’ll always be another app.

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