The House TikTok bill just passed. Now what?

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The House passed a bill Saturday that could force the sale of the ultra-popular video app TikTok within a year or face having it banned from U.S. app stores.

The TikTok bill, which the House had overwhelmingly passed in a previous version last month, was attached to a large package of aid and national security bills to support Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

The whole idea of potentially banning a global powerhouse app for its connections to China is surrounded by uncertainty — from the political ramifications to legal challenges to the question of how a forced sale could happen. It also raises a slate of new questions for Washington.

What’s next in the Senate?

After Saturday’s House vote, the set of aid bills including the TikTok provision heads to the Senate, where it’s expected to pass, since it’s considered priority legislation for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

The Senate previously sat on the earlier, House-passed TikTok bill in mid-March — letting it stall in the Senate Commerce Committee. This version, however, was updated based on negotiations with key senators, including Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), to help it hold up in the courts.

It extends the amount of time TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, has to find a buyer to one year instead of six months, appeasing some constitutional concerns in the Senate.

One potential hold-up is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). He has opposed the TikTok bill from the start, as well as the larger aid package, and could filibuster it. That’d force Schumer to invoke cloture, requiring 60 votes, to stop debate on the bill and move to a roll call vote.

Where does the administration stand?

President Joe Biden has said he supports the bill and will sign it into law.

His administration had worked for months behind closed doors with House bill co-sponsors to write the bill, and gave national security briefings to lawmakers about potential threats posed by the Chinese government accessing data from the Beijing-based ByteDance.

If it passes the Senate, Biden is expected to sign it — ending nearly four years of failed presidential attempts to separate TikTok from ByteDance.

What’s the problem with TikTok, exactly?

Bill supporters both in Congress and the White House say TikTok’s immense popularity, and its owner’s ties to China, are serious national security concerns. They say the Chinese government can ask ByteDance to provide U.S. user data under that country’s national security law, and say China’s government pushes propaganda via the app’s algorithms. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a report saying China used TikTok to meddle in the 2022 midterm elections.

TikTok’s CEO Shou Chew told Congress in January that the company has not been asked to share data with the Chinese government, and never would if asked to do so.

The Chinese Embassy has pushed back on the TikTok bill. It sent diplomats to lobby congressional staff to downplay the national security concerns, and argued among other things that a ban on TikTok would harm U.S. investors who have an ownership stake in ByteDance.

What’s TikTok’s next move?

If the bill passes, TikTok is expected to challenge it in the courts, arguing the law is unconstitutional, unfairly targeting a single company and violating the First Amendment.

However, some legal experts say the company will have a hard time making that case, and there’s precedent for national security concerns to outweigh free speech.

“One of the few things that can get around free speech and constitutional questions is national security,” said Sarah Kreps, director of Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute. “If that is the argument, then the legislation and the constitutionality of it will have enormous latitude.”

“I think that makes it very difficult for TikTok or whoever tries to sue to be successful,” she said.

Could anyone buy it?

Steven Mnuchin, former President Donald Trump’s Treasury secretary, was the first to express public interest, saying last month he was assembling an investor group to buy TikTok.

But a sale would be complicated for many reasons, not least the price. As a wholly owned subsidiary, TikTok is hard to value. But as an independent company, it would likely become one of the world’s most valuable tech platforms. ByteDance was valued at $220 billion as of March 2023, according to PitchBook.

TikTok could sell for $100 billion if the sale included the source code for the app’s algorithm, and for $40 billion without, Dan Ives, a managing director at wealth management firm Wedbush Securities, estimated last month.

Any company large enough to afford it would likely face antitrust challenges.

What about China?

China’s government has said it “firmly opposes” a forced sale of TikTok, and it would not allow the export of TikTok’s algorithm, which is the most valuable part of the app.

“You can buy the name but you can’t buy the technology,” said Jim Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “So we’ve got an impassable problem here. They can pass the bill. But it doesn't get us out of the hole.”

A forced TikTok sale could also escalate an already tense relationship with the global superpower — and it has already had some potential retaliatory impacts. China reportedly ordered Apple to remove Meta’s WhatsApp and Threads from its app store on Friday. While the move was largely symbolic — since both apps are already technically illegal in China — it raises the prospect of tougher action.