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President Biden signs law to ban TikTok nationwide unless it is sold

President Biden has signed a law that gives ByteDance up to a year to fully divest from TikTok, or face a nationwide ban.
Kiichiro Sato
President Biden has signed a law that gives ByteDance up to a year to fully divest from TikTok, or face a nationwide ban.

Updated April 24, 2024 at 12:54 PM ET

President Biden on Wednesday signed a law that would ban Chinese-owned TikTok unless it is sold within a year.

It is the most serious threat yet to the video-streaming app's future in the U.S., intensifying America's tech war with China.

Still, the law is not expected to cause any immediate disruption to TikTok, as a forthcoming legal challenge, and various hurdles to selling the app, will most likely cause months of delay.

The measure was tucked into a bill providing foreign aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan. The law stipulates that ByteDance must sell its stake in TikTok in 12 months under the threat of being shut down.

The move is the culmination of Washington turning the screws on TikTok for years.

Chinese tech giant ByteDance, in 2017, purchased the popular karaoke app and relaunched the service as TikTok. Since then, the app has been under the microscope of national security officials in Washington fearing possible influence by the Chinese government.

Despite concerns in Washington, TikTok has soared. It has become the trendsetter in the world of short-form video and is used by 170 million Americans, which is about half of the country. It is where one-third of young people get their news, accordingto Pew Research Center.

Yet lawmakers and the Biden administration argue that as long as TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, it is beholden to the dictates of China's authoritarian regime

"Congress is not acting to punish ByteDance, TikTok or any other individual company," said Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, in remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon.

"Congress is acting to prevent foreign adversaries from conducting espionage, surveillance, maligned operations, harming vulnerable Americans, our servicemen and women, and our U.S. government personnel."

In a video posted to the platform soon after Biden signed the bill, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said he is confident TikTok would win in court, adding that users should not expect issues with the app in the meantime.

"Rest assured, we aren't going anywhere," Chew said. "The facts and the Constitution are on our side and we expect to prevail again."

TikTok plans to take Biden administration to court over the law

If not sold within a year, the law would make it illegal for web-hosting services to support TikTok, and it would force Google and Apple to remove TikTok from app stores — rendering the app unusable with time.

It marks the first time the U.S. has passed a law that could trigger the ban of a social media platform, something that has been condemned by civil liberties groups and constitutional scholars.

TikTok has vowed to take the Biden administration to court, claiming the law would suppress the free speech of millions of Americans.

The sentiment was echoed by Kate Ruane, who runs the Center for Democracy & Technology's Free Expression Project, who said the law is unconstitutional and a blow to free expression in the U.S.

"Congress shouldn't be in the business of banning platforms," Ruane said. "They should be working to enact comprehensive privacy legislation that protects our private data no matter where we choose to engage online."

Selling TikTok won't be so easy

Any company, or set of investors, angling to purchase TikTok would have to receive the blessing of the Chinese government, and officials in Beijing have strongly resisted a forced sell.

In particular, ByteDance owns the engine of TikTok, its hyper-personalized algorithm that pulls people in and keeps them highly engaged with their feed.

Chinese officials have placed content-recommendation algorithms on what is known as an export-control list, meaning the government has additional say over how the technology is ever sold.

Law took TikTok by surprise

By almost any measure, the law passed rapidly, and it caught many inside TikTok off guard, especially because the company had just breathed a sigh of relief.

Last month, the House passed a bill to compel TikTok to find a buyer, or face a nationwide ban, but the effort stalled in the Senate.

The legislation gave TikTok a six-month window to find a buyer, which some senators said was too little time.

A new push, this time attaching the divest-or-be-banned provision to foreign aid, fasted-tracked the proposal. It mirrors last month's attempt, but it extends the sell-by deadline, now giving TikTok nine months to find a buyer, with the option of a three-month extension if a potential acquisition is in play.

Sen. Markey: 'American companies are doing the same thing'

Lawmakers from both parties have argued that TikTok poses a national security risk to Americans, since the Chinese government could use the app to spy on Americans, or influence what U.S. users see on their TikTok feeds, something that has gained new urgency in an election year.

But some have pushed back, including Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts. He said on the Senate floor on Tuesday that there is "no credible evidence" that TikTok presents a real national security threat just because its parent company is based in China.

National intelligence laws in China would require ByteDance to hand over data on Americans if authorities there sought it, but TikTok says it has never received such a request.

Markey said concerns about digital security, the mental health of young people and data privacy should be addressed with comprehensive legislation encompassing the entire tech industry, not just TikTok.

"TikTok poses a serious risk to the privacy and mental health of our young people," Markey said. "But that problem isn't unique to TikTok and certainly doesn't justify a TikTok ban," he said. "American companies are doing the same thing, too."

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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.