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TikTok Ban: Signed, Sealed, But Not Delivered

ByteDance may have bit off more than it can chew.

Legislation with many moving parts was signed into law yesterday, April 24, and one of those parts is the Chinese-owned TikTok, which will be banned from the United States unless the entity is sold to an American company. The new law forces ByteDance, owner of the wildly popular video app, to find a buyer in nine months, though that could be extended to one year. But then the jig is up, and ByteDance will not only run out of time but also be forced to divest itself of a mighty profitable entity. Not since Standard Oil or perhaps Ma Bell (AT&T) has the US government taken such a heavy hand in a private business concern. It is the top tech war in America, but is it a just cause?

The TikTok Riddle

It’s difficult to put into words just how powerful a force TikTok has become in the United States. In an industry that counts every smidgen of data, the numbers for the Chinese-owned app are astronomical. An estimated one-third of US citizens under the age of 30 get their daily news fix from TikTok. Verifiable estimates show that the app has penetrated 55.3% of the American marketplace.

The digital site Backlinko estimates that this time machine has more than 1 billion active users monthly and 4.1 billion downloads. In 2023, TikTok generated revenue of $16.1 billion, and its parent company was valued at $223.5 billion last year. The numbers are frankly unnerving. Suffice it to say TikTok is a behemoth in the US tech market, and it’s unlikely its Chinese owner will go quietly into the night. The real question is, should it?

Propaganda Tool or Just Innocent Fun?

The Federal Communications Commission has restricted foreign ownership of broadcast outlets for almost as long as they have existed. But like it or not, these are the waning days of radio and television, and in their place lies the bucking bronco of information — the internet. A couple of years ago, former President Donald Trump was on the edge of outlawing TikTok because of national security concerns. Still, for whatever reason (and there is plenty of speculation on the internet), he backed off, and TikTok lived to fight another day. However, some countries, Pakistan and India being the most prominent, have banned the app. Ironically, China does the same with Instagram and Facebook.

There is evidence that TikTok is not a friendly actor. The New York Times points out that ByteDance steps on loads of stories like “Hong Kong protests and Tibet — [that] are strangely missing from the platform.” There’s virtually no mention of Tiananmen Square, and pro-Ukraine and pro-Israel stories are essentially nonexistent.

Then there’s the whistleblower – a former highly placed company executive “who claimed that its Beijing offices included a special unit of Chinese Communist Party members who monitored ‘how the company advanced core Communist values,’” according to The Times.

There is also the sticky issue of mining a user’s data, which might not sound all that harmful. Most Americans are used to having their personal information bought and sold by just about everyone online. Then again, it all depends on what is being shared and for what purpose.

Liberty Nation’s Andrew Moran quoted one Democratic senator up in arms about the widely used app:

“’TikTok is a gun aimed at Americans’ heads,’ Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) stated. ‘The Chinese communists are weaponizing information that they are constantly surreptitiously collecting from 170 million Americans and potentially aiming that information, using it through algorithms at the core of American democracy.’”

On the Other Hand

A case also can be made for the government to get its hands off the Chinese app and leave TikTokers alone. After all, it’s a private company, and many libertarians are unhappy with such intervention. Comparing TikTok with other American-owned social media platforms reveals many similarities: Misinformation? Check. Stepping on specific unwanted stories? Check. Banning adversarial points of view? Check. Mining personal data? Check and double-check. A liberty-minded individual can legitimately make these cases for leaving the app alone – so why ban TikTok and not an American-owned tech behemoth?

Time for Court

It’s rare when both sides of the political aisle coalesce on one topic, but outlawing what they perceive to be a Chinese spy weapon from the cell phones of more than half of America’s population appears to have support from both Democrats and Republicans. As well it appears to be the single issue on which both leading presidential candidates are in agreement. Likewise, many American users make a living off TikTok and aren’t so willing to part with it. Opponents and proponents will likely clash in court in the coming months, but time is not on their side. Tick-tock.

Read More From Leesa K. Donner

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