TikTok: How would the US go about banning the Chinese app?
“We could ban TikTok,” President Trump told reporters on Friday.
On Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News that action would be taken in the next few days to address “national security risks posed by Chinese Communist Party-related software,” including the video app. in abbreviated form.
So how could a ban work?
An obvious starting point would be to order Apple and Google to remove the app from their online stores.
This could be done by adding the owner of TikTok Bytedance to a list of Department of Commerce entities and banning US companies from partnering with it – a similar tactic was used to stop Google from providing its apps to Huawei.
This would prevent new users from downloading the app.
Existing users would be prevented from receiving notifications and installing updates, although they would still have the app on their devices.
One way to fix this would be to tell Apple and Google to use a “kill switch” feature that they both have, which allows them to delete or prevent blacklisted apps from starting.
A Brazilian judge once threatened to force the two companies to use power in 2014, but eventually backed down.
Apple and Google would likely be reluctant to take control of users’ smartphones in this way and might even resist such an order.
So a simpler alternative might be to force local ISPs to block access to TikTok’s servers.
This would have the added benefit of preventing TikTok videos from being viewed via its website.
India took such a step when it banned TikTok and dozens of other Chinese apps. And users have reported that they are unable to bypass the block using a virtual private network (VPN).
But it is unclear how Mr. Trump would have imposed such an order.
A less draconian approach would be to ban the installation of TikTok on federal employees’ work phones.
Congress has already voted in favor of the idea and the Senate is still considering it. But it would be a far less dramatic move than Trump seems to suggest.
Another possibility is that the U.S. Foreign Investment Committee (CFIUS), chaired by the U.S. Treasury, will rule against Bytedance’s acquisition of the Musical.ly app, whose users have been migrated to TikTok in 2018.
Musical.ly was owned by another Chinese start-up.
But CFIUS has the power to review acquisitions that potentially pose a national security risk. And since Bytedance did not seek permission for the acquisition at the time, the committee was able to launch a post-settlement investigation last year.
If Cfius rejects the acquisition, it could order Bytedance to shut down the service in the United States.
The question is whether a spun-off TikTok would be allowed to continue with different properties alternatively, perhaps even with a rebranding.
Microsoft has confirmed it is in talks to acquire the business in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – some Internet pranksters have already suggested it might be called Microsoft Teens (a game on the company’s Teams service).
The US tech giant would presumably be seen as a more reliable guardian of the data the app collects and will allay fears that China may still somehow access its records.
Microsoft said it plans to complete talks with Bytedance by September 15.
What does TikTok say?
“One hundred million Americans come to TikTok for entertainment and connection.
“This year alone, we have hired nearly 1,000 people for our US team and are proud to hire an additional 10,000 employees.
“TikTok user data in the United States is stored in the United States, with strict controls on employee access. TikTok’s largest investors are from the United States.
“We are committed to protecting the privacy and security of our users as we continue to work to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to those who create on our platform.”
March 2012: Bytedance is founded in China and launches Neihan Duanzi, an app to help Chinese users share memes
September 2016: Bytedance launches Douyin short form video app in China
August 2017: An international version of Douyin is being launched under the TikTok brand in some parts of the world, but not in the US at this time
November 2017: Bytedance buy the Musical.ly lip sync music music app
May 2018: TikTok declared the world’s most downloaded non-gaming iOS app in the first three months of the year, by market research firm Sensor Tower
August 2018: Bytedance announces that it will close Musical.ly and transfer users to TikTok
February 2019: TikTok has been fined in the United States for Musical.ly’s handling of data from children under 13
October 2019: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg publicly criticizes TikTok, accusing him of censoring the protests
November 2019: Cfius opens national security investigation on TikTok
May 2020: TikTok hires Disney executive Kevin Meyer to become division chief executive and chief operating officer of Bytedance
July 2020: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and later President Trump, say TikTok could be banned
August 2020: Microsoft confirms it is in talks to buy and operate TikTok in the US and three other markets, adding it may invite other US investors to take minority stakes.