US House votes to advance TikTok ban if China parent company doesn’t divest


The US House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly (352-65) to pass a bill requiring popular social media app TikTok to sever ties with its China-based parent company ByteDance or face a nationwide ban in its largest market, the US.

This isn’t the first time US lawmakers have tried to ban or regulate the app:

  • 39 US states have restricted the app from government devices 
  • In 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order, broadly similar to yesterday’s bill (a court later shot it down)
  • Congress passed a bill in 2022 prohibiting the use of TikTok on any federally issued device or network, and
  • Montana passed a bill last year banning the app altogether (though a court has since blocked the ban)

But this time feels different, and Congress looks more united (at least on this).

Why is the US cracking down on TikTok?

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which, like most large Chinese firms, is subservient to Beijing’s political goals. In his testimony before Congress, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew defended his company’s independence from both ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but yesterday’s vote in Congress suggests he failed to sway US lawmakers.

Proponents of forcing TikTok to divest say the app is a risk to national security, and members of Congress received a classified briefing on Tuesday outlining the reasons why:

  1. Data collection 

Like other social media platforms, TikTok collects a wide range of data about its users, including location, contacts, device type, and age, as well as information about how users interact with the platform. But lawmakers in the US and beyond are concerned this data could be shared with others behind closed doors.

And this started to look less theoretical when it was revealed TikTok’s parent company accessed the personal data of two journalists to track down a company leak.

In response, TikTok pivoted in 2022 to store all US user data on US-owned Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. But as former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos pointed out, “internal data controls are extremely hard to build and trust”.

  1. The algorithm 

According to a recent poll, 14% of US adults say they regularly get their news from TikTok, a number that’s more than quadrupled since 2020. 

That gives the app real influence over the way Americans perceive and engage with the world around them. And yet, almost nothing is known about TikTok’s algorithm and the models it uses to choose what content to show, and more importantly not show, its users.

For example, all the way back in 2019, The Guardian reported on leaked company documents that suggested TikTok instructs its content moderators to censor references to Beijing’s taboo topics including Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and Falun Gong.

Beyond censoring views Beijing doesn’t like, there are also concerns TikTok could boost views Beijing does like. China’s state-owned media outlets have already used TikTok ads to broadcast pro-China messages to millions in the West, and there are fears its algorithm could boost pro-Beijing user-generated content too. All this in an election year.

So, what happens now?

The bill will now go to a vote in the Senate, where objections to the House bill will get a ‘fuller’ airing. If the bill passes, President Joe Biden has already said he’ll sign it into law.

At that point, ByteDance will have six months to spin off TikTok or challenge the legislation in court, arguing the bill infringes on the free speech rights of the app’s 170 million US users. Experts are split on whether this defence will hold water.

Of course, TikTok and its army of lobbyists aren’t standing idle: they’ve been actively mobilising TikTok users by exhorting them to contact their representatives about the bill, though it’s not clear whether that helped or hindered their case.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

I made a bold claim on Twitter/X a few days ago that there was no way a TikTok ‘ban’ would be in place before the US election. I guess I took Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s 2023 observation that banning TikTok could “lose every voter under 35, forever” too literally.

With that said, I can’t remember a bill moving through the House so quickly, particularly when you consider there were no leaks, and it passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee with a rare 50-0 vote.

If this bill becomes law (and that’s still an if because the US Senate works in mysterious ways), I’ll be watching China’s reaction very carefully. The pre-Xi Jinping China might have been expected to take a pragmatic approach and begrudgingly allow ByteDance to sell TikTok for a pretty penny while using the issue as leverage in other negotiations with the US.

But Xi’s China is not Deng Xiaoping’s China, and it seems likely Xi will prevent TikTok from being spun off. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce suggested as much last year when it announced it would use technology export restrictions to prevent TikTok from being sold to a US entity.

If that happens, it would tell us two things:

  1. That China really doesn’t want TikTok’s algorithm to fall into the hands of a foreign company, which suggests there really is something to hide.
  2. That security and ideology trump pragmatism in Beijing. That’s a reality that will need to be factored into any assessment about how Beijing will act in the future on issues like, say… Taiwan.

Ultimately, none of this is surprising: the CCP has always said it views itself as being in a long-term battle for control of the global narrative. If this ban passes it will reinforce that view in Beijing, no matter how US diplomats attempt to nuance it.

All I know is it’s time to buy stock in Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. – John

Also worth noting:

  • Former President Donald Trump, who once moved to ban TikTok, is now opposing the move after meeting with a TikTok investor, arguing it would upset a majority of young voters and disproportionately benefit rival US social media firm, Meta.
  • John Garnaut, a former journalist in China and adviser to former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, gave a speech in 2017 outlining how the CCP views the global battle for information. It’s a nuanced, informed and insightful piece of commentary well worth your consideration (if you find it paywalled, let us know).
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