Trying to Understand the “TikTok Ban”

April 30, 2024

On April 24, President Biden signed H.R.815 into law. This bill includes the “Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act”. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

I started writing this post on Wednesday after hearing the news, but things got busy. I’ve been reading posts and listening to podcasts where people have been discussing this for several days now. This post is my attempt to try and get some of my thoughts on the matter straight.

What does the act do?

First off: I am definitely not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. This is just my read on the act because I was curious about how it worked. I’m also not a US citizen, so please excuse any Canadianisms. That said, the text of the act is fairly short and I found it easy to read. Please let me know if I’m misrepresenting anything.

The act defines a “foreign adversary controlled application” as an app or website where one can make an account, upload content, has more than 1 million monthly active users, and is controlled by a “foreign adversary” of the United States. This category of app isn’t banned by default, but can be banned if the President of the United States thinks they’re a national security threat. I found it interesting that this also affects source code distribution. Apps focused on “product reviews, business reviews, or travel information and reviews” are exempt.

The act specifically calls out ByteDance, any of its subsidiaries/successors, and its app/website TikTok as immediately affected by the Act. TikTok, and any future app affected by this Act, are to be banned from being distributed or updated after 270 days (with a 90 day extension if the President tells Congress that things need a bit more time).

The penalties for distribution after the ban are up to $5,000 USD per user if an organization distributes or updates a banned app in the US. There’s also a requirement that apps in the process of being banned must allow US customers to export their content. If they don’t, there’s a penalty of up to $500 USD per user.

To get around the ban, an affected company can sell the app. They don’t need to sell to a US company, it just needs to be a company that isn’t a foreign adversary. Once sold, the previous owner can’t have anything to do with the new one.

Security threat

The rationale behind banning TikTok is that it’s a national security threat. This may be true, but I haven’t heard the best explanation as to why.

Some seem concerned that the app itself could be doing nefarious things on people’s devices. The Chinese government is no stranger to surveillance, so I understand where this is coming from. But on modern mobile platforms the TikTok app, when downloaded from Apple’s App Store or Google Play, is no different from any other app in terms of what spying capabilities it has. The app still needs to go through app approval on either store, and could be pulled by Apple or Google if it’s found to be doing anything shady.

TikTok also offers a web app that I’ve used a few times to see content. I don’t have a TikTok account, but I didn’t need to sign up to view content, and it’s not doing any more/worse tracking than something like Facebook. By my reading of the act above, the web version of TikTok will also be banned in the US.

I’m not going to pretend there’s no difference between companies in the US and a company in China. But as someone in Canada, I’m also quite concerned about the amount of tracking that companies in the US push on me. China is a foreign adversary to the US, so it makes sense that Chinese surveillance of people in the US would be scrutinized. However, I’m not convinced that TikTok is a large national security threat because of tracking. Chinese entities can still purchase data from data brokers all over the world. It seems that a bill like H.R.7520 - Protecting Americans’ Data from Foreign Adversaries Act of 2024 might be a better way to solve the underlying problem.

Another concern is that TikTok’s algorithms could be influencing its users in ways that might benefit China. I guess I can see this, but I’m not sure. Could a Chinese company be told by their government to show divisive or harmful content to users in the US? Absolutely. Is this actually happening? It’s hard to say. Perhaps the danger of it being possible is enough to try and ban the service. If there’s strong evidence for this sort of behaviour, I think it would be helpful for the parties trying to ban TikTok to share some of it. Maybe the evidence is so sensitive that they can’t speak about it at all, but I find that hard to believe.

Forced sale

I keep writing “ban” above, but one theme I kept seeing was that this isn’t a ban. Why, it might even be an opportunity! ByteDance can just sell TikTok and there won’t be an issue anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m from Canada, or maybe it’s because I’m not a hyper-effective capitalist, but this line of thinking rubs me the wrong way.

Let’s say that there was a large change in the political makeup of the US. Perhaps the government started playing really fast and loose with private user data of the companies within its borders. If the Canadian government said that Meta had to sell Facebook to a country with a stronger privacy regime or face a ban, I’d bet we’d be laughed out of the room.

Obviously this isn’t a 1-to-1 comparison. Canada is small potatoes compared to the US market. I just feel that some introspection would be helpful here. Not everyone is trying to build toward an exit.

I don’t know much about ByteDance as a company, but I’d bet many people working there take pride in building TikTok. While writing this, I learned that ByteDance’s first app, Neihan Duanzi, became very popular in China and was eventually banned by the Chinese government. Does ByteDance have to follow the law in China? Sure. But I don’t think they’re primarily a surveillance or propaganda company.

Also, let’s say the sale goes ahead: who would buy them? The companies with the largest market caps are mainly US tech companies. Would Meta get away with purchasing TikTok in the current regulatory environment? Do we want a TikTok that’s owned by a pharmaceutical or financial giant?

None of this probably matters. Even if ByteDance felt it was fine to sell, the Chinese government has previously said that it would oppose a forced sale. And because TikTok is being forced to sell, they’re in a very poor bargaining position.


I think the main reason that divestment is being floated is so the ban is easier to swallow. A lot of people in the US use, and love, TikTok. Many have made money, or even a living, on the platform. This has already started to be a political football in the 2024 US elections.

The Biden admin has been trying to ban TikTok for over a year, after having reversed an executive order from the previous administration. Then president Trump rallied hard to ban the app, only to now be saying that he doesn’t want a ban because it would give Facebook more power. There was also “Project Texas” which seems at least ineffective, and at most a boondoggle, in hindsight. It’s a giant mess.

It’s unclear who people will blame if a ban does go through, but I bet there will be more noise made about this in the lead up to November. Likely some of that noise will be made on TikTok itself.


On a great episode of the last week Vergecast, Nilay made the point that there are three possible ways this could end:

  • TikTok wins a lawsuit
  • TikTok sells
  • TikTok is banned from operating in the US

TikTok has already said that they’re going to head to court and try to prevent the sale or ban on first amendment grounds. I have no idea how that will look, but their odds of winning certainly aren’t zero.

I think the likelihood of TikTok selling, and being purchased by a company that could run the product, is effectively zero. Maybe I’m wrong, but this seems like a mess that TikTok doesn’t want, China doesn’t want, and the FTC wouldn’t even allow.

I think the most likely outcome is that TikTok will be banned in the US. I’m just a bit worried about the precedent this will set.