What Does it Mean for Trump to Ban TikTok?

Microsoft buying the U.S. side of TikTok should solve the problem, right?

Key Takeaways

  • Trump’s motives for banning TikTok might not have anything to do with a Chinese threat to Americans’ privacy.
  • Microsoft plans to buy the U.S. arm of TikTok from Chinese owner ByteDance by September 15th.
  • Ultimately, it probably won't matter either way; there's always a competitor waiting to take your customers on.
TikTok on smartphone screen in front of ByteDance logo
Getty Images / Chesnot

At the end of last week, President Trump threatened to ban the TikTok video-sharing service, although the mechanics of such a shutdown are vague. It could mean an outright ban on the app’s existence in the U.S., or it could have meant a forced sale of TikTok’s U.S. operations. Then, Microsoft stepped in and announced that it intended to buy the U.S. division of TikTok from ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns it. That would seem to be an end to the problem. Trump makes a fuss, an American company swoops in to clean things up, and everybody is happy. 

But then things started to get weird.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a video-sharing site, but it is not a social network. The video is still crowd-sourced, but unlike Facebook, you don’t follow your friends. Or rather, you can follow other users, but the main event is an algorithmically curated “For You” stream. The TikTok algorithm learns what you like, and shows you more.

Why Would Trump Ban TikTok?

There are several possible reasons that Trump might ban TikTok. One is that ByteDance is controlled by the Chinese government, and has access to user data for millions of U.S. users. More likely is that the White House is concerned about anti-Trump propaganda. In June, Trump’s Tulsa rally was disrupted by TikTok users reserving tickets they would never use. If TikTok was tweaking its algorithm to show these users’ videos to as many people as possible, then Trump may be right.

Could this ban be Trump’s revenge for that stunt? Or perhaps he wants to take out a potential enemy in the upcoming presidential election? Sadly, this seems likely.

What About a Sale to Microsoft?

Microsoft has been negotiating with ByteDance to buy the U.S. arm of TikTok, but was forced to suspend the plan after Trump opposed it, says the Wall Street Journal. Then, on Monday, Trump said during a news conference that Microsoft could buy TikTok, according to the New York Times.  

Microsoft responded publicly in a blog post, saying that its CEO, Satya Nadella, has spoken to Trump, and that it still plans to buy the TikTok service in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. If you were looking for a U.S. company that can be trusted with data, Microsoft would be near the top of your list. The company plans to complete the buyout soon, and has set a September 15th deadline on any discussions with ByteDance. 

Now, check out this part of Microsoft’s statement:

Among other measures, Microsoft would ensure that all private data of TikTok’s American users is transferred to and remains in the United States […] Microsoft would ensure that this data is deleted from servers outside the country after it is transferred.

Problem solved, right? Maybe not. 

Stanford researcher and Facebook alumnus Alex Stamos thinks that the ban might not be about protecting users' data at all.

“This is getting bizarre. A 100% sale to an American company would have been considered a radical solution two weeks ago and, eventually, mitigates any reasonable data protection concerns,” Stamos tweeted on August 2nd. “If the White House kills this we know this isn’t about national security.”

How Can the U.S. Stop People From Using an App?

If Trump decides to go ahead with a ban, how would he manage it?

“First of all, we're not sure what they mean by ‘banning’,” David Greene, civil liberties director and senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Lifewire via email. “Does that mean making it illegal to use in the U.S., making it illegal to sell in app stores, and/or making it illegal to operate in any way?”

One way would be to tell ByteDance to stop TikTok operations in the U.S. and close all related user accounts. But what if the Chinese-owned company (TikTok is domiciled in the Cayman Islands) just ignores this order (even if it comes as an executive order)? It’s the internet after all. Existing users (30 million in the U.S.) could just keep on using the app.

Another option would be to order Apple and Google to remove the app from the App Store and the Play Store. This would prevent new users from downloading the app. That wouldn’t prevent existing users from using TikTok, but without updates or new users, the service would wither. For a more complete blockade, the U.S. could follow India’s example.

If the goal is to stop TikTok trading in the U.S., then Trump might opt for the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IIEPA). But, says Greene, “[The] IIEPA specifically does not apply to ‘any postal, telegraphic, telephonic, or other personal communication, which does not involve a transfer of anything of value’.”

A month ago, India blocked 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok, because the Indian government concluded that the apps were “engaged in activities which (are) prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of state and public order.” India blocked these apps at the network level, preventing users’ phones from contacting the TikTok servers. This works for servers in and outside the country and is—in general principle—the way China’s Great Firewall operates to censor sources outside the country.

Technically, then, a ban could be quite straightforward. There is precedent for a required app sale if not for an outright block after all. In 2019, the Trump regime forced the sale of the Chinese-owned gay dating app Grindr.

“It is quite ironic that, while discussing protecting Americans from China’s government, the U.S. is considering firewalls and censorship, one of the hallmarks of the Chinese internet strategy,” said the EFF in a statement provided by Greene. “Banning Americans from using the TikTok app would infringe the First Amendment rights of those users, as an overly broad restriction on their speech, which was not narrowly tailored to achieve the government’s national security purpose.”

What Would a Ban Mean to the U.S.?

Of the 10 most-followed TikTok accounts, eight are from the U.S. Of the other two, one is the official TikTok account, and the other is Indian social media personality Riyaz Aly. The U.S., then, is an important market for TikTok.

Last month, Forbes estimated that the Indian TikTok ban could cost ByteDance up to $6 billion. India has 200 million users, but that market is obviously very different from the U.S.

An outright TikTok ban would likely also be a boon to Instagram. Even though the Facebook-owned visual social network is not a direct rival to TikTok, we humans only have so much video-watching time in a day. And if TikTok becomes the app of choice for people to mindlessly graze while commuting, then it becomes a threat not just to Instagram, but to Facebook as well.

Chart showing breakdown of TikTok users in U.S. as of June 2020

What, then, is the likely outcome of this spat? A Microsoft takeover would seem like the perfect answer, but even if the U.S. arm of TikTok is operated by a U.S. company, the all-important algorithm would still be controlled by China. Or, perhaps the algorithm wouldn’t come with the deal, which would make the purchase a bit pointless from Microsoft’s point of view. If the ban is just about the security of Americans’ data, then the sale will probably go ahead. But if it’s about Trump’s own desires, then who knows?

Ultimately, this may make little difference to the average TikTok user. If the Microsoft sale goes ahead, which seems like the likeliest outcome, then the service will continue on as usual. If there is a disruption, it will be down to any differences that might evolve between the original Chinese algorithm and Microsoft’s version.

And if Trump does manage to ban TikTok outright? It might be time to pick a new place to watch people dance. In India, rival video service Roposo got a staggering 500,000 new users per hour after the TikTok ban. See? Problem solved.

Update 8/4/2020 12:08 PM ET: Added information and quotes from EFF.