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What a TikTok ban could mean for Americans

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The walls are closing in on TikTok. The White House has announced that it supports a bipartisan Senate bill that would give the president the power to ban the Chinese-owned app. But is the super-popular video app actually going to be banned? And how would that even work? Well, to help us understand, we're joined now by NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So it seems like TikTok has been dealing with a lot of legal problems in recent months. Can you just bring us up to speed here?

ALLYN: Sure. So more than 30 states have acted to restrict TikTok in some way. Many states have banned the app on government-issued devices. Now, these bans honestly have had little effect on the company besides being kind of a hit to TikTok's reputation. Now, in Congress, meanwhile, there have been a flurry of bills aimed at TikTok, but the one that seems to be gaining the most momentum is broadly about limiting business with foreign countries considered adversaries like China. And the bill's sponsors say it would give Biden the power to force TikTok to be sold to an American company or to put TikTok out of business completely.

CHANG: But the federal government banning a whole company seems like a really big deal. Like, has this ever happened before?

ALLYN: Yes, federal government has placed entities in China, Russia and North Korea on blacklists, basically making it impossible to do business with them. But that has never happened, Ailsa, with a huge global social media company like TikTok. So from that regard, it's definitely unprecedented. The closest comparison would be of the gay dating app Grindr. At one point, that app was acquired by a Chinese firm. And the federal government looked at it and said, you know what? This kind of looks like a national security threat, so it ought to be sold to an American company. And that's what happened. And now we have the Biden White House trying to make TikTok do the same exact thing.

CHANG: The thing is, though, Bobby, TikTok is, you know, this hugely popular social media app. It's full of people expressing political views, other types of speech. I mean, wouldn't banning a whole platform for speech potentially violate the First Amendment?

ALLYN: Many legal scholars think so. And it's something Trump ran up against when he tried to crack down on TikTok. There's a law called the Berman Amendment that court cited when Trump's ban attempts were struck down. And it's this old Cold War-era law that says films, music, books and other information and now digital media must be able to flow freely between the U.S. and hostile countries. And legal experts say passing a TikTok ban would likely once again run up against these same legal hurdles, these free speech issues.

CHANG: OK, so let's say there is a ban, and we're sure to see some legal challenges to it. But let's talk for a minute about just how such a ban would even work. Like, if TikTok is banned tomorrow, say, what will happen to the app that's already on millions of people's phones here in the U.S.?

ALLYN: Yeah, it's not going to disappear overnight. There's no way of removing an app from someone's phone, obviously. But if TikTok were banned, it could become illegal to do business with the company. And so that would apply to Apple and Google. You know, you have the Apple store. You have the Google Play store. That's where TikTok and all apps send software updates. And if they're not able to do that, over time, TikTok would become slow. It would become buggy. Eventually it would become unusable. So basically it would die a slow death. It wouldn't be instant.

CHANG: And how close are we now to that actually happening, you think?

ALLYN: So it's bad as it's ever been for TikTok, but there's a few things to consider. First, the CEO of TikTok is testifying before Congress later this month. Secondly, TikTok has spent $1.5 billion to safeguard Americans' data. We have to see if that goes as far as the White House would like. I will note that Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said recently that banning TikTok could mean losing every voter under 35. And it's notable that the Commerce Department is leading the national security discussions with TikTok.

CHANG: That is NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you, Bobby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.