Congress passes TikTok sell-or-ban bill, but legal battles loom

WASHINGTON – The Senate passed a bill on Tuesday that would restrict the video app TikTok, a historic development in government regulation of social media that's on track to quickly become law.

Tucked into a $95 billion foreign aid package, the legislation will give TikTok's Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, up to a year to sell the app. If they don't, it would be banned from U.S. app stores and web hosting companies.

It received overwhelming bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress: The Senate passed the package 79-18 and the House approved the TikTok portion of the bill 360-58. President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law Wednesday.

Proponents of the policy say that the app poses a national security risk. Lawmakers, informed by Biden administration intelligence briefings, have raised concerns about the possibility of the Chinese government spying on Americans and spreading propaganda through the app. Around 170 million Americans use the platform.

"We are giving people a choice here: To improve this platform and have the opportunity for Americans to make sure that they are not being maligned by our foreign adversaries," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, on the Senate floor Thursday.

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TikTok says the Chinese government hasn't requested American users' data, and that it would not hand it over if they did. They also argue that the legislation violates Americans' right to free speech, and that banning the app would harm small businesses who rely on the app for exposure.

So far, there has been no public evidence that the app is being used to spy on U.S. citizens, but reporting from multiple outlets have indicated TikTok's American operation has struggled to fully separate from its Chinese parent company.

Court and diplomatic battles ahead

Now that Congress has approved the legislation, expect TikTok to fight it in court. That has worked in the past – former President Donald Trump also attempted to ban TikTok, which was blocked by a federal judge. More recently, a federal judge in Montana blocked a state ban, saying it "likely violates the First Amendment."

A TikTok spokesperson called the new law "unconstitutional" in a statement released Wednesday.

"Rest assured, we aren't going anywhere," TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said in a video statement, pledging to mount a legal challenge. "The facts and the Constitution are on our side, and we expect to prevail again."

If ByteDance is forced to comply, selling it would be complicated. TikTok is worth tens of billions of dollars, so only ultra-wealthy investors are likely able to afford it.

Investor groups and major tech giants like Microsoft, Apple and Oracle will consider bids, analysts say. Other big tech companies are likely to mull joint bids, though Google and Meta are not expected to attempt to buy it because of the Biden administration's aggressive antitrust stance.

Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also says he's organizing investors to bid on the app.

But the Chinese government would also likely block the sale of TikTok's algorithm, which would force a buyer to rebuild a crucial component of the app.

Pew Research poll released last December showed 38% of Americans supported banning TikTok compared to 27% who oppose and 35% who are unsure about the idea. That is down when compared to the 50% who said Congress should get rid of the app in March last year.

The survey also found those attitudes flip when U.S. adults under age 30 were asked. Among younger Americans, 41% oppose a ban versus 29% who support and 30% who remain unsure.

That's led some Democrats to raise concerns that the ban's passage could hurt their candidates in the general election this fall, especially with young people. But Democrats, including Biden, argue that the aim is not to ban the app but to get an American company to buy it.

"We just had 80 people vote for this of both parties, there's a strong concern about it," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told USA TODAY shortly after the Senate held a procedural vote en route to the final passage of the legislation Tuesday.

"We need the programming on TikTok and it's certainly very creative and successful, and I really believe it needs to continue," Stabenow added. "But it needs to continue in a way that does not jeopardize people's personal information as possibly being held by a foreign adversary."

Trump, too, appears to see an opportunity in the legislation: Despite previously attempting to restrict the app under his own administration, he posted to Truth Social on Monday: "Just so everyone knows, especially the young people, Crooked Joe Biden is responsible for banning TikTok."

The presumptive GOP presidential nominee told CNBC in March that he ultimately decided banning the social media site should be left up to Congress. "It's a tough decision to make," he said. "Frankly, there are a lot of people on TikTok who love it."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Congress passes TikTok sell-or-ban bill, but legal battles loom