Since its introduction to the US in 2018, TikTok has been fighting for its right to exist. First, the company struggled to convince the public that it wasn’t just for preteens making cringey memes; then it had to make the case that it wasn’t responsible for the platform’s rampant misinformation (or cultural appropriation … or pro-anorexia content … or potentially deadly trends … or general creepiness, etc). But mostly, and especially over the past three years, TikTok has been fighting against increased scrutiny from US lawmakers about its ties to the Chinese government via its China-based parent company, ByteDance.
Montana became the first state to ban TikTok outright on May 17, when its governor, Greg Gianforte, signed the bill into law. The legislation doesn’t make it illegal to use TikTok. Rather, it fines platforms that distribute it, like Apple’s and Google’s app stores. The Montana law goes into effect at the beginning of 2024, assuming it survives the inevitable court challenges. At least one of those will come from TikTok, which sued the state days after the law was signed.
“Today, Montana takes the most decisive action of any state to protect Montanans’ private data and sensitive personal information from being harvested by the Chinese Communist Party,” the governor said in a statement.
Until now, most of the scrutiny around TikTok resulted in partial bans on government-owned devices in the federal and the majority of state governments. Several bills have been introduced that would ban TikTok outright, but it was never a sure thing that they’d get past the courts even if they did manage to pass. The first statewide ban may also be our first test of that.
“Governor Gianforte has signed a bill that infringes on the First Amendment rights of the people of Montana by unlawfully banning TikTok,” Brooke Oberwetter, a spokesperson for the app, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, there are still threats to TikTok on the federal level. In March, a bipartisan group of 12 senators unveiled what might be the biggest threat to TikTok yet: a bill that would lay the groundwork for the president to ban the app. But that bill has been mired in controversy, with some pointing out that vague wording could lead to TikTok users facing fines and jail time for using things like VPNs to try to get around the ban.
Meanwhile, a government interagency committee that has been investigating TikTok for years appears to be on the cusp of ordering ByteDance to divest, or sell off, the app. That would take the potential Chinese threat out of the equation entirely — but only if ByteDance and China agree to it. As reports about a possible forced divestiture swirled, TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, told the Wall Street Journal that he thinks the company’s efforts to wall off the app’s US user data and recommendation algorithms from Chinese interference are more than enough to satisfy any national security concerns.
But banning TikTok isn’t as simple as flipping a switch and deleting the app from every American’s phone, even if this new bill does pass. It’s a complex knot of technical and political decisions that could have consequences for US-China relations, for the cottage industry of influencers that has blossomed over the past five years, and for culture at large. The whole thing could also be overblown.
The thing is, nobody really knows if a nationwide TikTok ban, however broad or all-encompassing, will even happen or how it would work if it did. It’s been three years since the US government has seriously begun considering the possibility, but the future remains just as murky as ever. Here’s what we know so far.
1) Do politicians even use TikTok? Do they know how it works or what they’re trying to ban?
Among the challenges lawmakers face in trying to ban TikTok outright is a public relations problem. Americans already think their government leaders are too old, ill-equipped to deal with modern tech, and generally out of touch. A kind of tradition has even emerged whenever Congress tries to do oversight of Big Tech: A committee will convene a hearing, tech CEOs will show up, and then lawmakers will make fools of themselves by asking questions that reveal how little they know about the platforms they’re trying to rein in.
Congress has never heard from Chew, TikTok’s CEO, in a public committee hearing before, but representatives will get their chance on March 23. Unlike with many of the American social media companies they’ve scrutinized before, few members of Congress have extensive experience with TikTok. Few use it for campaign purposes, and even fewer use it for official purposes. Though at least a few dozen members have some kind of account, most don’t have big followings. There are some notable exceptions: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Reps. Katie Porter (D-CA), Jeff Jackson (D-NC), and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) use it frequently for official and campaign reasons and have big followings, while Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) and Ed Markey (D-MA) are inactive on it after using it extensively during their campaigns in 2020 and 2021.
One vocal TikTok defender has emerged on the Democratic side: Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York organized a press briefing with dozens of TikTok creators on Capitol Hill Wednesday ahead of the congressional grilling of TikTok’s CEO. Bowman, who uses TikTok frequently, called the consensus to try to restrict TikTok part of an anti-China “hysteria.” —Christian Paz
2) Who is behind these efforts? Who is trying to ban TikTok or trying to impose restrictions?
While TikTok doesn’t have vocal defenders in Congress, it does have a long list of vocal antagonists from across the country, who span party and ideological lines in both the Senate and the House.
The leading Republicans hoping to ban TikTok are Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, who is the new chair of the House select committee on competition with China. All three have introduced some kind of legislation attempting to ban the app or force its parent company ByteDance to sell the platform to an American company. Many more Republicans in both chambers who are critics of China, like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas, endorse some kind of tougher restriction on the app.
Sen. Angus King (I-ME) has also joined Rubio in introducing legislation that would ban the app.
Most, but not all, Democrats have been reluctant to support a ban, saying they would prefer a broader approach. In the House, Gallagher’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, has also called for a ban or tougher restrictions, though he doesn’t think a ban will happen this year.
Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators is offering a different option with the recently introduced Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act. Led by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD), it isn’t an outright TikTok ban. Instead, it gives the government the authority to mitigate national security threats posed by technologies from hostile countries, up to a ban. TikTok would be subject to this bill. Warner, who runs the Senate Intelligence Committee, is perhaps the most vocal Democrat on the perceived dangers of TikTok, but had held off on signing on to a bill that would ban it specifically.
The majority of states in the US have banned TikTok on state government devices. Republican-controlled Montana became the first to ban the app entirely, but it’s very much an open question as to whether that law will be allowed to happen. It has been criticized as an infringement on free speech and difficult if not impossible for app stores to abide by due to technical constraints.
—CP and Sara Morrison
3) What is the relationship between TikTok and the Chinese government? Do they have users’ info?
If you ask TikTok, the company will tell you there is no relationship and that it has not and would not give US user data to the Chinese government.
But TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company based in Beijing that is subject to Chinese laws. Those laws compel businesses to assist the government whenever it asks, which many believe would force ByteDance to give the Chinese government any user data it has access to whenever it asks for it. Or it could be ordered to push certain kinds of content, like propaganda or disinformation, on American users.
We don’t know if this has actually happened at this point. We only know that it could, assuming ByteDance even has access to TikTok’s US user data and algorithms. TikTok has been working hard to convince everyone that it has protections in place that wall off US user data from ByteDance and, by extension, the Chinese government. —SM
4) What happens to people whose income comes from TikTok? If there is a ban, is it even possible for creators to find similar success on Reels or Shorts or other platforms?
Most people who’ve counted on TikTok as their main source of revenue have long been prepared for a possible ban. Fifteen years into the influencer industry, it’s old hat that, eventually, social media platforms will betray their most loyal users in one way or another. Plus, after President Trump attempted a ban in the summer of 2020, many established TikTokers diversified their online presence by focusing more of their efforts on other platforms like Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts.
That doesn’t mean that losing TikTok won’t hurt influencers. No other social platform is quite as good as TikTok at turning a completely unknown person or brand into a global superstar, thanks to its emphasis on discovery versus keeping people up to date on the users they already follow. Which means that without TikTok, it’ll be far more difficult for aspiring influencers to see the kind of overnight success enjoyed by OG TikTokers.
The good news is that there’s likely more money to be made on other platforms, specifically Instagram Reels. Creators can sometimes make tens of thousands of dollars per month from Instagram’s creator fund, which rewards users with money based on the number of views their videos get. Instagram is also viewed as a safer, more predictable platform for influencers in their dealings with brands, which can use an influencer’s previous metrics to set a fair rate for the work. (It’s a different story on TikTok, where even a post by someone with millions of followers could get buried by the algorithm, and it’s less evident that past success will continue in the future.) —Rebecca Jennings
5) What does the TikTok ban look like to me, the user? Am I going to get arrested for using TikTok?
Almost certainly not. The most likely way a ban would happen would be through an executive order that cites national security grounds to forbid business transactions with TikTok. Those transactions would likely be defined as services that facilitate the app’s operations and distribution. Which means you might have a much harder time finding and using TikTok, but you won’t go to jail if you do. —SM
6) How is it enforced? What does the TikTok ban look like to the App Store and other businesses?
The most viable path as of now is using the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which gives the president broader powers than he otherwise has. President Trump used this when he tried to ban TikTok in 2020, and lawmakers have since introduced TikTok-banning bills that essentially call for the current president to try again, but this time with additional measures in place that might avoid the court battles that stalled Trump’s attempt.
Trump’s ban attempt does give us some guidance on what such a ban would look like, however. The Trump administration spelled out some examples of banned transactions, including app stores not being allowed to carry it and internet hosting services not being allowed to host it. If you have an iPhone, it’s exceedingly difficult to get a native app on your phone that isn’t allowed in Apple’s App Store — or to get updates for that app if you downloaded it before this hypothetical ban came down. It’s also conceivable that companies would be prohibited from advertising on the app and content creators wouldn’t be able to use TikTok’s monetization tools.
There are considerable civil and criminal penalties for violating the IEEPA. Don’t expect Apple or Google or Mr. Beast to do so.
The RESTRICT Act would give the president another way to ban TikTok, as it gives the Commerce Department the authority to review and investigate information and communication technology from countries deemed to be adversaries, which would include TikTok and China. The commerce secretary could then recommend to the president which actions should be taken to mitigate any national security threat these technologies pose, up to banning them. The White House supports this bill. But a lot of things would have to happen before it’s a viable option to ban TikTok. First and foremost, the bill would have to actually pass. —SM
7) On what grounds would TikTok be reinstated? Are there any changes big enough that would make it “safe” in the eyes of the US government?
TikTok is already trying to make those changes to convince a multi-agency government panel that it can operate in the US without being a national security risk. If that panel, called the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS), can’t reach an agreement with TikTok, then it’s doubtful there’s anything more TikTok can do. CFIUS has been investigating TikTok for years now. An agreement that would allow TikTok to stay in the US seemed imminent last summer, but it was never finalized.
And it’s not looking very promising that it will be. Though a final decision still has not been made, recent reports say that CFIUS is pushing for ByteDance to sell off TikTok, ideally to a US-based company. The Biden administration declined to comment. That move was considered back in the Trump administration and would presumably take most (if not all) of the heat off TikTok. TikTok doesn’t think that would address the underlying issues.
“A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told Vox. “The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, US-based protection of US user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing.”
Even if ByteDance wanted to sell TikTok, it may not be allowed to. The Chinese government would have to approve such a sale, and it’s made it pretty clear that it won’t. —SM
8) Is there any kind of precedent for banning apps?
China and other countries do ban US apps. The TikTok app doesn’t even exist in China. It has a domestic version, called Douyin, instead. TikTok also isn’t in India, which banned it in 2020. So there is precedent for other countries banning apps, including TikTok. But these are different countries with different laws. That kind of censorship doesn’t really fly here. President Trump’s attempt to ban TikTok in 2020 wasn’t going well in the courts, but we never got an ultimate decision because Trump lost the election and the Biden administration rescinded the order.
The closest thing we have to the TikTok debacle is probably Grindr. A Chinese company bought the gay dating app in 2018, only to be forced by CFIUS to sell it off the next year. It did, thus avoiding a ban. So we don’t know how a TikTok ban would play out if it came down to it. —SM
9) How overblown is this?
At the moment, there’s no indication that the Chinese government has asked for private data of American citizens from ByteDance, or that the parent company has provided that information to Chinese government officials. But American user data has reportedly been accessed by China-based employees of ByteDance, according to a BuzzFeed News investigation last year. The company has also set up protocols under which employees abroad could remotely access American data. The company stresses that this is no different from how other “global companies” operate and that it is moving to funnel all US data through American servers. But the possibility of the Chinese government having access to this data at some point is fueling the national security concerns in the US.
This doesn’t speak to the other reasons driving government scrutiny of the app: data privacy and mental health. Some elected officials would like to see stricter rules and regulations in place limiting the kind of information that younger Americans have to give up when using TikTok and other platforms, (like Markey, the senator from Massachusetts), while others would like a closer look at limits on when children can use the app as part of broader regulations on Big Tech. Democratic members of Congress have also cited concerns with how much time children are spending online, potentially detrimental effects of social media, including TikTok, on children, and the greater mental health challenges younger Americans are facing today. TikTok is already making efforts to fend off this criticism: At the start of March, they announced new screen time limits for users under the age of 17. But even those measures are more like suggestions. —CP
Update, May 23, 9:50 am ET: This story was originally published on March 2 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to reflect Montana’s TikTok ban and TikTok’s lawsuit.