Will the US crack down on TikTok? Six questions (and expert answers) about the bill in Congress.

The clock is ticking. On Wednesday, the US House overwhelmingly passed a bill to force the Chinese company ByteDance to divest from TikTok, or else the wildly popular social media app would be banned in the United States. Many lawmakers say the app is a national security threat, but the bill faces an uncertain path in the Senate. Below, our experts address six burning questions about this bill and TikTok at large.

1. What kind of risks does TikTok pose to US national security?

Chinese company ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok poses two specific risks to US national security. One has to do with concerns that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could use its influence over the Chinese owners to use TikTok’s algorithm for propaganda purposes. Addressing this security concern is tricky due to legal protections for freedom of expression. The other risk, and the one addressed through the current House legislation, has to do with the ability of the CCP to use Chinese ownership of TikTok to access the massive amount of data that the app collects on its users. This could include data on everything from viewing tastes, to real-time location, to information stored on users’ phones outside of the app, including contact lists and keystrokes that can reveal, for example, passwords and bank activity.

Sarah Bauerle Danzman is a resident senior fellow with the Economic Statecraft Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center.

This debate is not over free speech or access to social media: The question is fundamentally one of whether the United States can or should force a divestment of a social media company from a parent company (in this case ByteDance) if the company can be compelled to act under the direction of the CCP. We have to ask: Does the CCP have the intent or ability to compel data to serve its interests? There is an obvious answer here. We know that China has already collected massive amounts of sensitive data from Americans through efforts such as the Office of Personnel Management hack in 2015. Recent unclassified reports, including from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, show the skill and intent of China to use personal data for influence. And the CCP has the legal structure in place to compel companies such as ByteDance to comply and cooperate with CCP requests.

Meg Reiss is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

2. Are those risks unique to TikTok?

TikTok is not an unproblematic platform, and there are real and significant user risks that could pose dangers to safety and security, especially for certain populations. However, focusing on TikTok ignores broader vulnerabilities in the US information ecosystem that put Americans at risk. An outright ban of TikTok as currently proposed—particularly absent clearer standards for all platforms—would not meaningfully address these broader risks and would in fact potentially undermine US interests in a much more profound way.

As our recent report outlines in detail, a ban is unlikely to achieve the intended effect of meaningfully curbing China’s ability to gather sensitive data on Americans or to conduct influence operations that harm US interests. It also may contribute to a global curbing of the free flow of data that is essential to US tech firms’ ability to innovate and maintain a competitive edge.

Kenton Thibaut is a senior resident China fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Some have argued that TikTok, while on the aggressive end of the personal data collection spectrum, collects similar data to what other social media companies collect. However, the US government would counter with two points: First, TikTok has a history of skirting data privacy rules, such as those limiting data collection on children and those that prevent the collection of phone-specific identifiers called MAC numbers, and therefore the company cannot be trusted to handle sensitive personal data in accordance with the law. And second, unlike other popular apps, TikTok is ultimately beholden to Chinese regulations. This includes the 2017 Chinese National Intelligence Law that requires Chinese companies to hand over a broad range of information to the Chinese government if asked. Because China’s legal system is far more opaque than the United States’, it is unclear if the US government or its citizens would even know if the Chinese government ever asked for this data from TikTok. While TikTok’s management has denied supplying the Chinese government with such data, insider reports have uncovered Chinese employees gaining access to US user data. In other words, the US government has little reason to trust that ByteDance is keeping US user data safe from the CCP.

—Sarah Bauerle Danzman

3. What does the House bill actually do?

There are two important, related bills. The one that passed the House today is the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, which forces divestment. It is not an outright ban, and it is intended to address the real risk of ByteDance—thus TikTok—falling under the jurisdiction of China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which compels Chinese companies to cooperate with the CCP’s requests. However, divestment doesn’t completely solve for the additional potential risks of the CCP using TikTok in a unique or systemic way for data collection, algorithmic tampering (e.g. what topics surface or don’t surface to users), or information operations (e.g. an influence campaign unique to TikTok as opposed to on other platforms as well). Second, the Protecting Americans’ Data from Foreign Adversaries Act, which cleared a House committee last week, more directly addresses a broader risk of blocking the Chinese government’s access to the type of data that TikTok and many other social media platforms collect on the open market. The former without the latter is an incomplete approach to protecting Americans’ data from the CCP—and even the two combined falls short of a federal data privacy standard.

Graham Brookie is vice president and senior director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

There is no question China seeks to influence the American public and harvests large amounts of data on American citizens. As our recent report illuminates however, the Chinese state’s path to these goals depends very little on TikTok.

Today’s actions in the House underscore the disjointed nature of the US approach to governing technology. Rather than focus on TikTok specifically, it would be both legally and geopolitically wiser to pass legislation that sets standards for everyone, and not just one company. That could mean setting standards for what actions or behavior by any social media company would be unacceptable (for example on the use of algorithms or collection and selling of data). Or Congress could focus on prohibiting companies that are owned by states proven to have conducted hostile actions toward US digital infrastructure to operate in the United States. That would certainly include TikTok (and many other companies). This bill takes a halfway approach, both tying itself explicitly to TikTok owner ByteDance and hinting that it could apply to “other social media companies.”

Rose Jackson is the director of the Democracy and Tech Initiative at the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

The recently passed House bill, if it were to become law, would create a pathway to force the divestment of Chinese ownership in TikTok or ban the app from app stores and web hosting sites. Unlike previous attempts by the Trump administration to ban the app outright or force a divestment through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act would not just affect TikTok. Instead, the legislation would create a process through which the US government could designate social media apps that are considered to be under the control of foreign adversaries as national security threats. Once identified as threats, the companies would have 180 days to divest from the foreign ownership or be subject to a ban.

—Sarah Bauerle Danzman

4. What would be some of the global ripple effects of a TikTok ban?

The United States has always opposed efforts by authoritarian nations seeking to build “great firewalls” around themselves. This model of “cyber sovereignty” sees the open, interoperable, and free internet as a threat, which is why countries like China already have a well-funded strategy to leverage global governance platforms to drive the development of a less open and more authoritarian-friendly version. A TikTok ban would ironically benefit authoritarian governments as they seek to center state-level action (over multi-stakeholder processes) in internet governance. TikTok should not lead the United States to abandon its longstanding commitment to the values of a free, open, secure, and interoperable internet.

A ban could generate more problems than it would solve. What the United States should consider instead is passing federal privacy laws and transparency standards that apply to all companies. This would be the single most impactful way to address broader system vulnerabilities, protect US values and commitments, and address the unique risks related to TikTok’s Chinese ownership, while avoiding the potential significant downsides of a ban. 

Kenton Thibaut

5. What do you make of TikTok’s response, particularly in pushing its users to flood Capitol Hill with calls?

Members of Congress were rightfully alarmed by TikTok’s use of its platform to send push notifications encouraging users to call their representatives. However, Uber and Lyft used this exact same tactic in California when trying to defeat legislation that would have required it to provide benefits to its drivers. If we try to solve “TikTok” and not the broader issue TikTok is illuminating, we will keep coming back to these same issues over and over again. 

—Rose Jackson

6. How is China viewing this debate?

The CCP has a tendency to throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall in an attempt to make its arguments, in this case that the divestment of TikTok from its Chinese parent company ByteDance is unnecessary. When the CCP has justified the internment of Uyghurs, it has thrown out everything from defending its repression based on terrorist beliefs across the population to claiming that it was just helping with social integration and developing work programs. The CCP has already made claims that the divestment would cause investors to lose faith in the US market and that it shows a fundamental weakness and abuse of national security. Expect many different versions of these arguments and more. But all the anticipated pushback will be focused on diverting the public argument away from the fundamental concern: The Chinese government can, under law, force a Chinese company to share information. 

—Meg Reiss

Further reading

Related Experts: Sarah Bauerle Danzman, Kenton Thibaut, Megan Reiss, Rose Jackson, and Graham Brookie

Image: United States Representative Robert Garcia (Democrat of California) at a press conference protesting the banning of TikTok in front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on Tuesday, March 12, 2024. Credit: Annabelle Gordon / CNP/Sipa USA