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US Congress passes a potential TikTok ban; so, what happens next?

Senate passes $95 million foreign aid package

WASHINGTON (CNN) — Congress finalized legislation on Tuesday that could lead to a nationwide TikTok ban, escalating a massive threat to the company’s U.S. operations.

The bill passed the Senate as part of a wide-ranging foreign aid package meant to support Israel and Ukraine. It was approved by the House on Saturday. It now heads to President Joe Biden’s desk. If he signs the bill, as he is expected to do, TikTok would be forced to find a new owner within months or be banned from the United States entirely.

Here’s what we know and how it could affect you.

What does the TikTok legislation do?

The bill approved this week is an updated version of a bill that House lawmakers approved in March. It gives TikTok’s Chinese parent, ByteDance, 270 days to sell TikTok. Failure to do so would lead to significant consequences: TikTok would be prohibited from US app stores and from “internet hosting services” that support it.

That would effectively restrict new downloads of the app and interaction with its content. If signed this week, the deadline for a sale would fall in January 2025. Under the legislation, however, Biden could extend the deadline another 90 days if he determines there’s been progress toward a sale, giving TikTok potentially up to a year before facing a ban.

How did this wind up in a bill about foreign aid?

The earlier TikTok bill had been passed by the House, but it stalled in the Senate. In a procedural move, House Republicans this month attached the revised TikTok bill to the foreign aid package in hopes of forcing the Senate to vote on the TikTok legislation. Bundling the bill with the foreign aid — a top US priority — fast-tracked the TikTok bill and made it more likely to pass.

Will Biden sign the TikTok bill?

Since the bill is part of the foreign aid package that Biden has vocally supported, he is expected to sign it, and quickly. Biden has also been on record supporting the earlier TikTok legislation, so there is little reason to think he would oppose the latest version of it that gives TikTok a slightly longer runway and the White House additional input in the forced sale.

What does this mean for my use of the app?

If and when Biden signs the bill into law, it would start the 270-day clock for TikTok to find a buyer. If it can’t separate from ByteDance, then TikTok users could hypothetically be cut off by January. But that is still a big “if.” So for now, TikTok fans can continue using the app as before, though they might begin to see more creators — or the company itself — speaking out in the app to oppose the legislation.

What are TikTok’s options?

TikTok has promised to take the U.S. government to court if Biden signs the bill. In a memo on Saturday, a top TikTok executive wrote to employees that this would be the “beginning, not the end” of a long process to challenge what the company calls unconstitutional legislation that censors Americans’ speech rights and that would harm small businesses that depend on the app. In March, TikTok CEO Shou Chew vowed to continue fighting, “including (by) exercising our legal rights.”

Does TikTok have a case?

First Amendment experts say a bill that has the ultimate effect of censoring TikTok users could be shot down by the courts.

“Longstanding Supreme Court precedent protects Americans’ First Amendment right to access information, ideas, and media from abroad,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, policy director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “By banning TikTok, the bill would infringe on this right, and with no real pay-off. China and other foreign adversaries could still purchase Americans’ sensitive data from data brokers on the open market.”

A court challenge could lead to the measure being temporarily blocked while the litigation plays out, likely over multiple years. But if a court declines to grant a temporary injunction, TikTok could have to scramble to comply with the law.

So what if TikTok gets sold to someone else?

The trouble is that TikTok’s parent is subject to Chinese law, and the Chinese government is on record opposing a sale.

In recent years, China has implemented export controls governing algorithms, a policy that would seem to cover the incredibly successful algorithm that powers TikTok’s recommendation engine.

If the Chinese government doesn’t want to let ByteDance relinquish TikTok’s algorithm, the thinking goes, it could block the sale outright. Alternatively, it may allow TikTok to be sold but without the lucrative algorithm that forms the basis for its popularity.

Can TikTok still succeed without its algorithm? That would be the difficult question facing the company in the event of a forced sale. Without the secret sauce that has propelled the app to 170 million US users, the app could be as good as dead.