TikTok app icon on phone showing TikTok ban over national security

Biden Administration Signs off on TikTok Ban Over National Security Concerns, App Could Be De-listed in 2025

The Biden administration’s TikTok ban campaign took a big step forward this week, as the president signed a bill that requires owner ByteDance to either divest itself of the massively popular app or have it removed from American app stores. National security concerns have driven this process forward, but ByteDance still has the right to challenge the action in court and any ban would be instituted no sooner than January 2025.

TikTok ban centered on China’s national security law

Several reasons for a TikTok ban have been floated since the issue was first raised under the Trump administration in 2019, such as the ability of the Chinese government to use it as a propaganda outlet and the harm that things like the “Tide Pod challenge” have done to kids. But China’s national security law, which allows it to freely access any data stored by its domestic companies without any real due process, has been the central driving force since a Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) investigation was opened in 2019.

The prospect of the US’s biggest rival siphoning user data is also the justification for the Biden administration’s current push for a TikTok ban. The bill cleared the Senate as part of a foreign aid package on Tuesday and was almost immediately signed by the president. The original bill that passed the House called for a six-month deadline for ByteDance to sell to a US-based company or be banned from app stores, but that time limit has now been extended through the remainder of 2024 at minimum.

ByteDance has also not yet exhausted its avenues of legal recourse, and was successful in this arena when the Trump administration tried the first TikTok ban (via executive order) in 2020. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew called the ban “unconstitutional” as a First Amendment violation for its users, and vowed to challenge the bill in court and keep the app accessible in the US during the process.

If the national security bill stands, as of some point in 2025 TikTok would have to be delisted from the Apple and Google US app stores if ByteDance opts not to sell, and could not be hosted on any US-based servers. The bill would not stop US users from sideloading the app from a foreign server or using a VPN to access foreign app stores, but the ban would likely cut into the app’s mostly non-technical user base substantially as those methods are not matters of common knowledge.

Amit Yoran, Chairman and CEO at Tenable, points out that social media apps are also still in need of a broad range of regulation from a data privacy and security perspective: “Passage of the new TikTok law only addresses part of the challenge posed by social media to Americans’ security. The Chinese government’s access to TikTok user data is no doubt a threat to our national security, but what’s also concerning are the active cyber threats posed by most social media platforms to their users. It’s unacceptable that social media applications are still unregulated and continue to broadly collect vast amounts of sensitive user data, such as active locations, contact information, birthdates, personal interests, and user photos. With AI, this kind of personal information can be co-opted much faster to cause interference and influence. Social media companies need to take immediate action to better protect user data or expect to face regulatory oversight.”

National security concerns thus far based on hypotheticals

Part of the major controversy around the TikTok ban is the lack of any evidence that the Chinese government has accessed American data or directly threatened national security using the app; the government correctly points out that this could be done without anyone knowing about it, but to a TikTok-loving public of some 170 million US users, the concerns appear to be completely hypothetical.

Since the TikTok ban campaign first began in earnest in 2020, the company has made numerous major changes in a bid to assuage national security concerns. It shifted all handling of US user data to operation centers in the US and Singapore, supposedly siloing the app from its Chinese counterpart (more commonly referred to as “Douyin” there), and with a pledge to eventually have all US data in the US and under the supervision of Oracle. That plan initially seemed to placate the Biden administration, but a series of internal leaks over the past two years re-ignited the issue as it came out that China-based engineers still had access to US data.

The hypothetical scenarios extend to what might happen if TikTok ultimately fails in its legal challenges. Microsoft and Oracle appear to be the leading frontrunners to purchase it, but several other names have publicly expressed interest: Walmart, Elon Musk’s X, Rumble and a number of private equity groups among them. However, it is entirely possible that the forced sale would not include the platform’s recommendation algorithm. Some surveys indicate that most TikTok users would pick up Snap or Instagram as an alternative, and Musk recently posted a poll asking if X users were interested in the return of Vine.

While there has been a massive public outcry against the TikTok ban, some recent surveys suggest Americans are more divided on the issue than social media would make it appear. A March poll conducted by the Associated Press found that just 35% of US adults favor the TikTok ban, with 31% supporting it and 31% noncommittal. The issue might play a role in the upcoming election, and candidate Donald Trump has already appeared to flip-flop from his previous stance to oppose the Biden administration and support TikTok. Trump has tied his new stance on TikTok not just to capturing younger voters upset at Biden, but also his personal grudge with Facebook (which permanently banned him in 2021), which he believes would benefit from a TikTok ban. Trump is also now in opposition to the majority position of House Republicans, who view the bill as a necessary national security measure.