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20 May 2024 11:08
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  •   Home > News > International

    America is a step closer to banning TikTok, but will it work?

    The bill would force TikTok's Chinese owners to sell within 12 months or be banned in America.

    A potential ban on social media app TikTok in the United States has progressed through the congress, as 170 million users watch on nervously. 

    The legislation has again passed the House of Representatives with the support of both Republicans and Democrats, and will now go to the Senate. 

    If it passes and is signed by President Joe Biden, which he has said he would do, it would force TikTok's Chinese owners ByteDance to sell the app within 12 months, or face a ban. 

    A previous version of the bill giving the company just six months to sell passed the House last month but didn't get through the Senate. 

    Half of America's population is on TikTok, and politicians are concerned the Chinese-owned platform poses national security risks if China compels the company to share data.

    TikTok insists it has never shared US data and never would. 

    The bill is among four pieces of legislation tied up in a foreign aid package, which includes funds for Ukraine, Israel and US allies in the Indo-Pacific. 

    Security concerns

    The United States has long harboured concerns China's government could force TikTok to hand over data on US citizens. 

    China has a set of national security laws that compel organisations to assist with intelligence gathering — and this could include ByteDance. 

    Chinese author Murong Xuecun lives in Australia, and says despite TikTok denying it would share personal data, the company might not have a choice. 

    "Xi Jinping [China's president] says the party must take control in every aspect of life in China," he said.

    "There's a major yet invisible shareholder behind TikTok with veto rights — that is the Chinese government."

    Two-way street

    The passing of the bill in the US House comes as China forces Apple to remove social platforms WhatsApp and Threads, both owned by Facebook's parent company Meta, from its App Store.

    The platforms were already blocked in China, but some users could still access the apps using encrypted networks known as VPNs.

    Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter) and Google are also blocked.

    Technology researcher Tianyu Fang from US think tank New America says the Chinese government has created a sense of fear around American-owned platforms.

    "A lot of these concerns were not based on evidence, but pure paranoia that if Chinese citizens had access to X or Facebook, they would become opposed to the government," he said. 

    Mr Fang believes the US is adopting a similar narrative when it comes to TikTok, and it plays into the hands of America's big tech companies. 

    "You're seeing big tech executives in Silicon Valley pushing for that narrative too, in part, not because of their genuine concern for national security, but also their private interests," he said.

    Mr Xuecun says the Chinese government has long been abusing freedom of speech in Western democracies.

    "Foreign press … can't operate in China, but China can establish newspapers and TV stations in the US.

    "China has always seen the free world as the enemy, and nowadays this animosity is becoming more and more obvious."

    Will it work?

    While there's still a long way for this bill to go before it becomes law, it does have support from key US senators.

    TikTok's owners are likely to try to stall any potential sale by appealing. 

    But if the company refuses to sell and the ban is enacted, Tianyu Fang isn't sure the ban would achieve US politicians' aims. 

    "In the hands of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, it would actually be safer," he said.

    "But on the other hand, I think a lot of Chinese espionage and influence will still take place, as we've seen right now on platforms like X and Facebook.

    "It wouldn't really achieve its original intention."

    Mr Fang says a sale would also be a hit for the Chinese government.

    "A sale of a Chinese company to a US competitor would be a loss in its geopolitical competition and technological competition with the US," he said.

    What about the TikTokkers?

    Some TikTok influencers, who say they use the app to acquire brand deals and other types of income, travelled to Washington last month to lobby against the bill.

    Small businesses have also raised concerns about a potential ban. 

    Mr Fang said Meta could emerge as the winner if the TikTok app was banned, like it was in India in 2020.

    "I think there will be a lot of discontent among young Americans participating in online discussions … the vast majority of which have nothing to do with China," he said.

    "If TikTok eventually gets banned, which I think is not an unlikely consequence, then we're going to see a lot of these users going to Instagram reels."

    With half of America on TikTok, that could result in a flurry of users going to Meta's competitor, Instagram.

    China's loss could end up being a huge gain for America's founding father of social media, Mark Zuckerberg.

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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