A look at the US Senate's TikTok legislation - Hindustan Times
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A look at the US Senate's TikTok legislation

May 27, 2024 09:59 AM IST

Authored by - Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

In a historic legislative move, the United States (US) Senate has passed a bill requiring ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok, to sell the popular social media platform within a year or face a nationwide ban. This legislation, which has garnered significant bipartisan support, forms part of a broader foreign-aid package and has been signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone screen in Tokyo, Japan. (AP)
The TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone screen in Tokyo, Japan. (AP)

The roots of the controversy surrounding TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, can be traced back to growing concerns over national security and data privacy. TikTok, a platform known for its short, engaging videos, rapidly gained popularity worldwide, including in the US, where it boasts over 170 million users. However, its rise was accompanied by increasing scrutiny from lawmakers and security experts worried about the potential for user data to be accessed by the Chinese government.

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Concerns about TikTok's data privacy practices first gained significant attention during the Trump administration. In 2020, then President Donald Trump issued executive orders seeking to ban TikTok, citing national security risks. These orders were blocked by the courts, but they set the stage for ongoing legislative and regulatory actions against the app.

The recent bill passed by the US Senate represents a culmination of these ongoing concerns. The legislation requires ByteDance to divest its US operations of TikTok or face a ban on the app within American app stores and web hosting services. This move could have substantial economic repercussions, disrupting the livelihoods of countless content creators and small businesses that depend on TikTok for marketing and income. TikTok claims that a ban would devastate seven million businesses and silence millions of Americans.

According to a report by AdImpact, TikTok has spent over $5 million on TV ads opposing the legislation, highlighting the significant economic stakes involved. The platform's rapid growth has been evident, with estimates indicating that it generated $4.6 billion in revenue in 2021 alone, a 142% increase from the previous year.

TikTok has vowed to challenge the bill in court, arguing that it is unconstitutional and infringes on free speech rights. This sets the stage for prolonged legal battles, which could delay the implementation of the ban or sale. The company has already mobilised its user base and invested millions in lobbying efforts to oppose the legislation. As of 2023, TikTok had spent approximately $10 million on lobbying in the US.

The political implications of this ban are also significant. Young voters, who form a major demographic for TikTok, might feel alienated by the platform's potential ban, which could impact upcoming elections. The issue has already sparked political debates, with former President Trump criticising Biden for the ban, despite his previous attempts to take similar action against TikTok.

Proponents of the bill argue that ByteDance's connections with the Chinese government pose a significant national security threat. They fear that Beijing could access American user data through TikTok, potentially using it for espionage or influence operations. TikTok has countered these claims by asserting that it has implemented robust measures to protect user data from foreign interference. However, lawmakers remain unconvinced, and intelligence officials have briefed them on the potential risks, although specific details of these briefings remain classified.

The US's approach to TikTok parallels India's decision in June 2020 to ban TikTok along with dozens of other Chinese apps. India's ban followed a military clash with China along the border, with the Indian government citing national security and data privacy concerns. Both actions reflect growing global apprehensions about the influence and reach of Chinese technology companies.

Both the US and India have cited national security as a primary reason for their actions against TikTok. The fear is that Chinese apps could be used for espionage or to influence public opinion through data manipulation. Concerns over data privacy and the potential for Chinese authorities to access user data have been central to both countries' decisions. In the US, lawmakers have been briefed by intelligence officials about the potential risks, although specific details remain classified.

While India's ban came in the context of a direct military conflict, the US decision is framed within broader geopolitical tensions and concerns about technology's role in national security. The US move also comes with significant economic and political dimensions, as it affects a major platform with deep integration into American digital life.

The passage of this bill marks a significant shift in how the US regulates foreign-owned tech companies operating within its borders. It sets a precedent for future actions against other Chinese-owned platforms and highlights the growing trend of digital nationalism. Countries are increasingly scrutinizing and regulating foreign technology companies to protect national security and data privacy.

The economic stakes are high, with TikTok's user engagement metrics showing that it surpassed Facebook in terms of time spent per user, averaging 52 minutes per day as of 2022. The platform also had over one billion monthly active users globally by the end of 2021, demonstrating its vast reach and influence.

As the situation evolves, it will be crucial to monitor the legal battles, ByteDance's response, and the broader implications for US-China relations and global tech governance. The forced divestment of TikTok underscores a complex interplay of national security concerns, economic interests, and political calculations. This trend reflects a world where digital borders are becoming as significant as physical ones, and where countries are taking stronger stances to safeguard their digital sovereignty.

The US Senate's decision to pass a bill requiring ByteDance to divest TikTok represents a pivotal moment in the regulation of foreign-owned technology companies. The move underscores the increasing importance of national security in digital policy and highlights the potential economic and political ramifications of such decisions. As legal battles ensue and the global tech landscape continues to evolve, this case will serve as a crucial reference point for future actions and policies concerning digital sovereignty and national security. The decision reflects a broader shift towards protecting digital borders and ensuring that technology does not become a tool for foreign influence or espionage, marking a new era in the regulation of global tech companies.

This article is authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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