Tic, toc, TikTok: U.S. launches plan to force sale of app

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Tic, toc, TikTok: U.S. launches plan to force sale of app

Last week, camouflaged among a foreign aid package, a law was passed in the United States that could ban TikTok in that country. In the absence of robust regulation on personal data or digital platforms, the measure constitutes the largest U.S. action against a social networking company. With Joe Biden's signature, the countdown begins for ByteDance - the company that owns the app - to challenge the rule in court or sell its flagship product. 

For years, TikTok has been the subject of suspicion from political voices in the United States, who find that the application could be used by the Chinese government to obtain private information from users and to distribute propaganda on its behalf. 

Like many companies in China, ByteDance is legally required to establish an internal committee composed of Communist Party members. In addition, the government owns 1% of Douyin Information Service, a domestic subsidiary of ByteDance. According to Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, this stake is actually a license to operate in that country. 

Since 2020, following pressure from the Donald Trump administration, TikTok has sought to distance itself from the Chinese government. Among other things, in 2022 the company launched the so-called Project Texas, an initiative to store its U.S. users' data on Oracle servers located in the United States, which in theory would serve to protect them from foreign actors. 

The company has accompanied its defense with the deployment of lobbying campaigns to prevent measures against it. Last year, when Chew was called to testify before Congress, TikTok covered the expenses of dozens of influencers who came to Washington to oppose a possible sanction. 

In recent weeks, during the discussion of the rule that was finally approved, TikTok provided a message on its platform to suggest its users to call legislators to express their rejection of the bill: "Let Congress know what TikTok means to you and tell them to vote NO", could be read on an option to call Capitol Hill. 

TikTok message during the discussion of the law in the United States.

This action, however, could have backfired and was labeled as a form of manipulation. "While Congress was discussing how a foreign company could influence domestic politics, TikTok demonstrated just how it can manipulate user behavior in the face of political processes," said David Carrol, a privacy rights activist. 

The passage of the rule, known as the Protecting Americans from Apps Controlled by Foreign Enemies Act, condenses the concerns of members of both the Republican and Democratic parties. ByteDance now has a nine-month deadline to separate itself from the app, on pain of being banned by the government at the national level. 

It is not yet clear what the scope of the rule might be or how an eventual sale of TikTok involving only its U.S. operation might be effected. First, there are difficulties in estimating how much the company might cost - the figure could range from $20 billion to $100 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. In addition, there is the question of whether a sale would include one of the fundamental factors of the application: its recommendation algorithm, as this is actually part of the core of ByteDance's operations and the company would not be willing to hand it over to its competitors. According to information from Reuters, ByteDance would prefer to suspend its activity in the United States before separating from TikTok. 

"We're not going anywhere," Chew said in a video posted on the platform following the law's passage, in which he also assured that TikTok would exhaust available legal remedies to oppose it. 

In principle, U.S. jurisprudence would tend to support TikTok, since the First Amendment, which enshrines the right to freedom of speech in the United States, covers even foreign propaganda. However, the argument of the protection of national security, which both Congress and the government use to support the ban or forced sale, could convince the Supreme Court to let the law stand. 

In any case, there is no public evidence that the relationship between ByteDance and the Chinese government may be being exploited in the way that supporters of the law assume, nor that this rule can prevent this from actually happening. 

According to technology journalists Justin Hendrix and Ben Lennett, there is no concrete reason to consider that TikTok has been a channel of Chinese influence more than other social networks, nor that the data from this platform is more useful to Chinese intelligence than any other dataset available in the global market. In the scenario that the law dispute reaches the Supreme Court, the U.S. government will have to offer information to prove what are so far hypotheses. 

The dispute is also part of the narrative of a supposed digital cold war between China and the United States, according to which the idea of national security protection could enable measures that affect millions of users in that country. For José Marichal, a professor at California Lutheran University, this type of reaction undermines the ideal of an open Internet: "We have moved from a commitment to Internet freedom to effective censorship of an incredibly popular social network for the sole reason that it belongs to a rival nation," he said in a piece published in Tech Policy.

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