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Sunday, April 14, 2024

How the US Could Ban TikTok in 7 Not-So-Easy Steps

TikTok’s growth spurt early in the pandemic alarmed not only competing social networks but also the US government. Could the video sharing app, owned by Beijing’s ByteDance, be turning over the locations or personal interests of its nearly 100 million US users to the Chinese government? Could the Chinese government order TikTok to manipulate American minds spending hours flipping through clips? The app quickly became a convenient target for US officials sparring for attention and taking on China. 

Three years later no one has yet presented evidence of China exploiting TikTok to attack the US, but lawmakers are planning to introduce legislation to Congress this month that would open the way for President Biden to ban the app altogether.

Like a good TikTok stunt, US politicians could be staging theatrics to appeal to their audience. But there is bipartisan interest in moving against the company. TikTok is sending its low-profile CEO, Shou Zi Chew, to testify to Congress on March 23 and attempting to appease US officials by moving data and workers to the United States. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Some observers expect Washington to take action. “We will see limitations this year,” says Mira Ricardel, a former White House deputy national security adviser now at the Chertoff Group advising businesses on regulations. “There is a unanimity of view that will lead to doing something.” Here is what that something may look like.

Study How India Trampled TikTok

Government restrictions on apps or online services are rare in the US. India’s approach could be instructive for US lawmakers, because the country banned TikTok in June 2020 in the world’s biggest crackdown on the service.

India’s government ordered TikTok to withdraw from the country, required Google and Apple to disable downloads of it from their app stores, and forced internet service providers to block connections to the service. Iran, Jordan, and Uzbekistan also have prevented access to TikTok, according to NetBlocks, an organization tracking internet censorship.

India’s TikTok blockade is permeable. A few small ISPs permit access, according to NetBlocks. And Ram Sundara Raman, lead developer for the University of Michigan's Censored Planet project, says he was able to watch videos during a visit to India using the app he had downloaded in the US. But the ban has forced many Indian users to turn toward rival services, including from Google and Facebook, and has caused turmoil for influencers who built businesses on TikTok. 

Learn From Trump’s Failure

Donald Trump, during his presidency in 2020, labeled TikTok a national security threat through an executive order and tried to ban it under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. But courts blocked the ban, saying the president had overstepped his authority. A judge also ruled that TikTok fell under an exemption to the emergency powers law that bars interfering with personal communications.

Trump’s order would have immediately prohibited app stores from distributing TikTok, and nearly two months later would have barred cloud providers and internet infrastructure services from doing business with the company. People or companies caught dodging the order could have faced fines or prison sentences. “We wanted to start at the root, where it comes into the US, and extract it that way,” says Ivan Kanapathy, who was China director for Trump’s National Security Council and is now vice president at policy consultancy Beacon Global Strategies.

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Individual users would not have faced penalties for staying on TikTok, and internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon would not have been covered under the order unless they had any kind of business deal with TikTok. “The trigger is really a transaction,” says Pablo Chavez, a longtime tech policy executive at Microsoft and Google who is now an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

Make a Law to Fix the Flaw

Some members of Congress say they will propose new laws in the coming weeks to address the legal issues that allowed courts to block Trump’s order. The new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, expects his panel to vote by the end of the month on legislation that he has yet to unveil that would authorize the president to ban TikTok and other apps that the US deems beholden to China’s government, his office says.

McCaul’s fellow Republicans, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin are working on building additional support—including from Democrats—for a separate proposal, according to their aides. It would narrowly prohibit transactions between US entities and social media companies that originate from China, Russia, and a few other countries that the US considers adversaries. The aim is to make apps such as TikTok nonviable by blocking them from collecting money from US advertisers or being promoted on app stores.

Democratic senator Mark Warner of Virginia has his own broader plan that he aims to introduce in the next couple of weeks, according to his team. Fearing that legislation targeting primarily TikTok would draw retaliation from China, Warner thinks that a new law should authorize the president to disrupt a variety of technology-related transactions in which foreign adversaries have an interest that poses a risk to US security. The legislation could apply to a range of companies that have been targeted by the US government, including Russian antivirus developer Kaspersky and Chinese telecom-equipment maker Huawei. 

Deliver an Ultimatum

Back in 2020, Trump also ordered ByteDance and any other Chinese shareholders to divest from TikTok. President Biden and the company are still negotiating over whether that divestment will happen. If Congress can get a new law on the books, it may give Biden leverage.

Lawmakers including Rubio and Gallagher want to make it unambiguous in their new legislation that TikTok will be banned unless it drops all connections to China. The US previously forced the Chinese owner to divest from gay dating app Grindr. “I don't know how our national security interests and the operation of TikTok in this country, as long as it's owned by ByteDance, can coexist,” Rubio told the TV program Face the Nation this week.

Get Biden to Order the Ban

Biden’s most direct move against TikTok would be to emulate Trump’s 2020 order and require US data centers, app stores, and networking providers to cancel contracts with the app, cutting off users.

He also could try to find some legal authority to go a step further and order internet service providers, including cell networks, to actively block access to TikTok in the US, a situation that a spokesperson for one large American ISP says their company has not encountered before. The exact methodology could be left to individual ISPs.

That could lead to ISPs adopting tactics more often seen in countries with deep-reaching internet censorship. A common approach is to tamper with domain name records, preventing users’ devices from successfully connecting to particular servers. It is also used to block access to websites dedicated to violating copyrights and distributing child sexual abuse material in much of the world.

Networks can also use more stringent tactics to enforce censorship demands, such as inspecting unencrypted data moving through their systems for hints of suspect material or filtering certain IP addresses. But these measures are more likely to accidentally disrupt other traffic, says Alp Toker, director at NetBlocks. “They may shy away in practice from this mechanism unless pressured to do so.”

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growing number of US companies, schools, and states are enacting measures such as domain name blocking to bar access to TikTok on their local networks.

Ride Out the Backlash

TikTok is on pace to become the third most popular social network in the US this year, behind Facebook and Instagram, according to Insider Intelligence.

The potential wrath of those users if TikTok gets banned is surely on regulators’ minds. “Who wants to make every teenager and tween in America angry at them? That’s a big deal,” says Nazak Nikakhtar, who was an assistant secretary of commerce during the Trump administration and is now a partner at law firm Wiley Rein.

Civil liberties activists view a potential ban as both xenophobic and hypocritical of US lawmakers, who promote free speech abroad but would be curbing a venue for self-expression at home. Lawmakers hear those concerns but argue that the threat of China’s influence via TikTok can outweigh upholding free expression, policy experts say. “When it comes to national security, you do certain things to prevent bad things from happening,” says Chertoff Group’s Ricardel. “We don’t want to be hit with a missile and to not have a missile defense shield.” 

Prepare to Get Beat

Congressional aides and former administration officials acknowledge that users who really want their short video fix will be able to circumvent a ban. 

Under an order that covers app stores, existing TikTok users would stop receiving app updates and would probably find their experience degraded over time. But they could find a way to download TikTok from another country, or use a virtual private network, to access the service via other countries. And ISPs messing with domain names can be sidestepped by changing settings on a web browser or mobile device. 

NetBlock’s Toker expects that if TikTok were to be restricted, a small but vigorous industry would spring up to help provide access to the app. Lawmakers should likely expect a cat-and-mouse game of blocks, evasion, and counter-blocks rather than to vanquish TikTok for good with one stroke of a pen.

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