Is Tiktok a public enemy?

On March 13th a bill was adopted by the US House of Representatives which would require ByteDance, the Bejing-based parent company of TikTok, to sell the video-sharing app within 6 months or face a ban in the United States. The ostensible reasons behind the initiative are longstanding concerns that the private data of the American users could be used as a tool by the Chinese government to exert influence over American politics/elections and domestic affairs. There is little new to these, so far, unsubstantiated claims and the fact that the US political establishment is trying to ban TikTok during an election year carries an air of déjà vu.

In 2020 then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order giving ByteDance 90 days to sell or spin off its US TikTok business. The reason cited by the former president was that ByteDance "might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States." The measure immediately faced legal challenges and it was finally killed a few months later when Donald Trump left the White House and the Biden administration overturned the proposed ban.

The irony here lies in the fact that it is now Mr. Trump’s turn to oppose a forced sale or ban of the wildly-popular social media app. In an effort to bolster his bid for a second term with support from the younger voters, the former US president did an about-face and came out in support for the mega-app. From national security hawk to champion of free speech – nobody can accuse Donald Trump’s principles of not being flexible!

TikTok boasts about one billion users worldwide, out of which more the 170 million are inside the United States. In other words half of all US citizens use the platform for communicating and expressing their views. Civil and digital rights groups point out that a direct or indirect ban of app would violate the freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment. Furthermore, there is a sense that while the cyber security concerns surrounding TikTok are valid, they apply equally well to other social media platforms.

Facebook, Instagram, Google and X, formerly known as Twitter, all collect the data of their users and use it to serve targeted adds, which is a questionable practice but not so much that anyone is talking about banning them. But when TikTok does the same, we see the result. What explains this is that all the former are US companies. By contrast, the Chinese government owns a 1% stake and appoints one out of three members on the ByteDance board of directors. And there is also the perception among Washington policymakers that China keeps its private corporations on a short leash.

In 2021 an analysis conducted by the University of Toronto found that the evidence is “inconclusive about whether TikTok employs political censorship of user posts.” Other studies have also failed to uncover hard proof that the app interferes with or influences the views of its users. But in the highly politicized atmosphere of an election year suspicion is sufficient.

Nor is the United States alone in their distrust of TikTok. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Afghanistan, the UK, New Zeeland, Taiwan, France, Estonia, Norway, the EU and NATO headquarters, all prohibit the use of the app on government owned devices. India and Nepal went a step further and completely barred TikTok from operating within their borders. It is important to note, however, that in their case the ban was not primarily on account of cyber security but rather in retaliation for border clashes with China that left at least twenty Indian soldiers dead.

Before the Indian public abruptly lost access to TikTok in 2020, the app had more than 200 million users on the subcontinent. The vacuum created was quickly filled by US tech giants and a slew of domestic startups. Within a week of the ban, Meta came up with Instagram Reels, and Google introduced YouTube Shorts in India. Most of the content that used to be hosted on TikTok was swiftly moved to the new platforms and, overall, the disruption was limited.

For the United States also, the technical and logistic difficulties created by a potential ban will be manageable. Instead, it’s the political and legal challenges which are bound to be formidable. The TikTok bill breezed through the House of Representatives with 352 votes for to 65 against. However, it now sits with the Senate Commerce Committee, the place where other measures seeking to restrict TikTok have stalled in the past.

Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell indicated that the current version of the bill may need to undergo significant modifications to ensure it’s in agreement with the US Constitution. There is no timeline for this process, but it will likely take months. Only then will the bill be allowed to go before the Senate for a vote. After and if the bill passes the Senate vote, it’s sent to the White House to be signed into law. This step should be straightforward since President Biden has already publicly endorsed banning TikTok, unless by that time someone else is sitting in the Oval Office.

Another thing to consider is that China will not sit idly by and wait for this to happen. TikTok is the 4th largest social media service in the world, and it is the one Chinese success story in a landscape dominated by American giants, so China will fight tooth and nail to protect it. The Chinese government has already announced that it opposes a forced sale of the app. If the bill gets signed into law, it’s almost certain that the 6 month term for ByteDance to divest from TikTok will be extended months or even years amid a prolonged legal battle. Also, US companies doing business on the Chinese market will likely fall victim to retaliatory measures.

Even if somehow ByteDance agreed to offload TikTok, it’s still difficult to imagine how a sale could take place. When the Trump administration ordered the sale of TikTok in 2020, the app was worth $50 billion. Today it is valued at $268 billion. A deal this size would require much more time than a mere six months to hammer out, and the limited pool of buyers means it also runs the risk of being scuppered by antitrust and competition legislation. There is a snowball's chance in hell of TikTok being sold and everyone knows it.

This leaves us two possible outcomes – either TikTok will be kicked out of the US market, or it will not. If it stays, it will keep serving as a rallying cry for those lambasting Chinese influence over the United States economy and society. In case TikTok is banned, it will mark another escalation in the Cold War between today’s superpowers. Chinese response will be fierce, especially since, as far as evidence goes, the social media app has played by the rules. A potential TikTok ban would add impetus to the decoupling of the Chinese and American markets, and to the sundering of the global economy into distinct geo-economic blocs.