What to Know About the TikTok Ban Legislation
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What to Know About the TikTok Ban Legislation

House lawmakers are voting on Wednesday on legislation meant to force ByteDance, the Chinese internet company, to sell its wildly popular social media app TikTok.

The vote will be the latest development in a yearslong cold war between the United States and China over who controls valuable technology from computer chips to artificial intelligence. Lawmakers and the White House have expressed concerns that TikTok’s Chinese ownership poses a national security risk because Beijing could use the app to gain access to Americans’ data or run a disinformation campaign.

If the House passes the bill, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, has not yet committed to bringing it up for a vote.

Here’s what to know about the bill.

Many are worried that the Chinese government could demand the personal data of Americans from ByteDance and that, under Chinese law, ByteDance would have to comply.

Lawmakers including Representative Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who co-led the bill, and Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, also say China could use TikTok’s powerful algorithm to feed its users political propaganda. Christopher A. Wray, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, have flagged the concerns in the last year.

The bill, which Mr. Gallagher introduced with Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, has had bipartisan support.

TikTok says the concerns are baseless. It notes that about 60 percent of the company is owned by global institutional investors, including the financial giants Susquehanna International Group and BlackRock. It also says that three Americans are on its five-person board. According to the company, it has spent more than $1 billion on a plan that stores sensitive U.S. user data domestically on servers operated by Oracle, the American cloud computing company.

The bill essentially says that TikTok must be sold within six months to a buyer that satisfies the U.S. government. The sale would have to guarantee that ByteDance no longer has any control over TikTok or its algorithms that recommend content to users.

If ByteDance can’t or refuses to sell TikTok, it would be unlawful for app stores and web hosting companies to distribute or update the app in the United States. The Justice Department could punish any company that works with TikTok or offers its app for download.

Probably not.

With 170 million users in the United States alone, TikTok would carry a high price tag, which few companies or individuals could afford. If forced to sell, it’s also unclear whether ByteDance would put the app’s entire global footprint up for sale or just its United States operation.

Some of the companies that could potentially afford to the buy TikTok are tech giants like Microsoft, Google and Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram. But the Biden administration has tried repeatedly, using antitrust law, to block those companies from becoming bigger.

Even if ByteDance could find a buyer for TikTok, China might not let a sale occur. In 2020, when American officials first tried to force a sale of TikTok, Beijing placed export restrictions on technology that sounded similar to TikTok’s content recommendation algorithm. Last year, Beijing said it would oppose a sale.

“You’re not going to be able to force ByteDance to divest,” said James Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Support for a ban has been bipartisan, as Republicans and Democrats have both been concerned about China’s influence.

But in a surprise move, former President Donald J. Trump opposed the TikTok legislation in recent days. That was a reversal from his position on the app in 2020, when he tried to ban it.

“Trump’s opposition is a meaningful new headwind to this bill becoming law,” said Paul Gallant, a policy analyst for TD Cowen. “A lot will depend on whether he goes to the mat on this TikTok bill the way he did with the border security bill.”

Free speech groups have also opposed the bill, saying they worry that a ban would shut down expression.

If the bill passes the House and Senate and is signed into law by the president, it would impose civil penalties on app stores, like those operated by Apple and Google, if they distributed or updated TikTok.

The app is already on millions of phones in the United States, but the restriction on updates is likely to degrade users’ ability to access it.

This would be supplemented by a measure that prohibits web hosting companies from helping to distribute the app.