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Is TikTok getting banned? What does US bill mean – and could it happen in the UK?

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The US Senate has voted in favour of legislation that could ban TikTok in the country – if its Chinese owners refuse to sell. 

The bill passed by a wide margin in the Senate on 23 April after being voted through in the House of Representatives.

But does the ban actually mean an end to TikTok in the US? How would it work – and could something similar happen in the UK?

What does the bill mean?

The bill gives Chinese company ByteDance nine months to sell its stake in the US version of TikTok – with the possibility of a three-month extension to finalise a deal – or the app will be blocked.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the goal is ending Chinese ownership – not banning TikTok.

But it is unclear if China would approve any sale or if it could go ahead within the timeframe.

There’s also a question mark over who would buy it – although if the legislation is passed, it could make the sale price cheaper.

“Somebody would have to actually be ready to shell out the large amount of money that this product and system is worth,” said Stanford University researcher Graham Webster, who studies Chinese technology policy and US-China relations.

“But even if somebody has deep enough pockets and is ready to go into negotiating to purchase, this sort of matchmaking on acquisitions is not quick.”

What would it mean for users?

The app is used by about 170 million Americans.

If it is banned, it would be removed from app stores including Apple and Google, and blocked on web hosting services.

This would remain in place until ByteDance sold TikTok.

However, it is likely users could still access the app using virtual private networks (VPNs) that bypass restrictions, according to telecom analyst Roger Entner.

Politicians and TikTok creators speak out against the bill on Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Pic: Reuters

Why is the US worried about TikTok?

Both the FBI and Federal Communications Commission have warned that TikTok owner ByteDance could share user data, such as browsing history, location and biometric identifiers, with China’s authoritarian government.

TikTok said it has never done that and would not do so if asked.

The worry stems from a set of Chinese national security laws that compel organisations to help with intelligence gathering.

The US director of national intelligence has also said she “cannot rule out” that China would use TikTok to influence US elections.

Senate Commerce Committee chair Maria Cantwell said the move to force TikTok’s sale was not aimed at “punishing” ByteDance, TikTok, or other companies.

“Congress is acting to prevent foreign adversaries from conducting espionage, surveillance, maligned operations, harming vulnerable Americans, our servicemen and women, and our US government personnel,” she said.

What happens now?

President Joe Biden will now sign the legislation.

He had already committed to signing the bill if it passed, despite his 2024 campaign officially joining TikTok in February.

However, the company will likely launch a legal challenge against the bill, arguing it will deprive the app’s 170 million US users of their First Amendment rights, which protect freedom of speech.

The company will need to file any legal challenges within 165 days of the bill being signed by the president.

It could also face opposition from TikTok’s content creators who rely on the platform for their income, while China has previously said it would oppose a forced sale of the popular app.

In November, a US judge blocked a Montana state ban on TikTok use after the company sued.

The passage of the bill could also change depending on the outcome of the November election.

Despite Donald Trump vowing to ban the app in 2020 on national security grounds – with his administration brokering a deal that would have had US corporations Oracle and Walmart take a large stake in TikTok – the presidential hopeful no longer supports a ban.

Read more from Sky News:
Ofcom investigates TikTok over parental controls
Nepal bans TikTok over claims it disrupts ‘social harmony’

Could something similar happen in the UK?

TikTok has not faced a nationwide ban in the UK, but in March 2023 it was banned from government devices.

This came after a review found there “could” be a risk to how data and information is used by the app.

Oliver Dowden said while TikTok use was “limited”, banning it was good cyber “hygiene”.

However, he stressed the government was not advising people against using TikTok in a personal capacity.

He told MPs: “This ban applies to government corporate devices within ministerial and non-ministerial departments, but it will not extend to personal devices for government employees or ministers or the general public.

“That is because, as I have outlined, this is a proportionate move based on a specific risk with government devices.”

The cabinet office said the move was taken because TikTok users are required to hand over data including contacts, user content and geolocation data.

What has TikTok said about the US bill?

TikTok urged senators to listen to their constituents before taking any action on the bill, which it said amounted to a ban.

A TikTok spokesperson said: “This process was secret and the bill was jammed through for one reason: It’s a ban.

“We are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents, and realise the impact on the economy, seven million small businesses, and the 170 million Americans who use our service.”

TikTok has also pointed out that there is no Chinese state ownership within ByteDance or representation on its board.

Crucially, it says it is incorporated outside of China – a fact that seeks to distance TikTok and ByteDance from coming under the influence of the Chinese intelligence law on information-sharing.

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