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House passes bill that would force TikTok's China parent company to sell or face ban

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The future of TikTok in the United States is less certain today. This morning, the House overwhelmingly passed a bill that would ban the social media platform, which is owned by a Chinese company, from all U.S. devices. If it becomes law, it could put an end to an app now known for all sorts of videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MANNY ALLOH: They want to ban TikTok? Ban Google Sheets. I hate it. I don't know the...

DAVE JORGENSON: Yesterday was Super Tuesday. Historically, this has been an opportunity for a huge momentum shift in a presidential election year.

KC DAVIS: If you're someone that has a hard time keeping your space clean or getting your space clean after a bout of depression, anxiety, ADHD, children...

SCHMITZ: Here to talk through this with us is NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So we've seen efforts to ban TikTok before back in the Trump administration and also by some other states. Why is Congress trying this again?

ALLYN: Yeah, you know, a few reasons. One, there is a lot of pent-up animosity in Washington over the threat that China poses in terms of China's spying on Americans, the country pushing pro-China propaganda and potentially meddling in U.S. elections. And TikTok has come to embody all of those fears. Now, the obvious question, Rob, is, is TikTok doing any of this today? And the short answer is no.

SCHMITZ: But I guess lawmakers would say TikTok could theoretically do these things. Is there proof that TikTok is being used in this way at all?

ALLYN: Right. Well, lawmakers come out of classified briefings and say the things that they're hearing about TikTok does sure raise concerns. But publicly, there isn't a lot of evidence, meaning there is no publicly available evidence that the Chinese Communist Party has used TikTok to spy or influence the public opinion of Americans. But China experts say it certainly is possible. And right now, that concern, even though it's theoretical, it's enough to mobilize lawmakers because we're in a presidential election year.

SCHMITZ: OK, so let's get to this bill. What does the House bill specifically do?

ALLYN: Yeah, the bill gives TikTok's owner an ultimatum - find a buyer in six months or be banned. Now, six months is not a lot of time in the world of mergers and acquisitions, so the company would really have to work at lightning speed to make this happen. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, Rob. Tiktok's parent company in Beijing, ByteDance, has repeatedly said it is not interested in selling TikTok. We don't know yet what's going to happen in the Senate. But if a companion bill does pass in the Senate and President Biden signs it, which he said he would, the clock would start ticking for TikTok. If they don't find a buyer in 180 days, the sanctions start.

SCHMITZ: And so what does that look like exactly?

ALLYN: Yeah, there's no way to remove an app from phones that have already downloaded it, right? You can't just magically make apps disappear.

SCHMITZ: Right.

ALLYN: But the bill takes aim at how people download TikTok, on app stores. So it would become illegal for Apple's App Store and the Google Play Store to carry TikTok. Software updates happening all the time in the background will stop. That means TikTok will get glitchy and buggy, and eventually users will just get fed up with how bad the service is and stop using it.

SCHMITZ: I hear a chorus of screams from teenagers across the country.

ALLYN: (Laughter).

SCHMITZ: What is TikTok saying about this?

ALLYN: Yes, you do. TikTok is emphasizing the impact this would have on the economy, right? I mean, TikTok is a massive app used by many millions of people. Many of them are businesses. And it says if you shut down this social media app, it will have a far-reaching consequence for many people. And they also point to, you know, civil liberties groups and others, which say, you know, this House bill tramples on the free-speech rights of millions of Americans. And this sets up another important point, Rob, which is, if the bill became law, there is bound to be a long legal fight ahead.

SCHMITZ: So Bobby, we've got a few seconds left. Say more about that. The courts have considered TikTok bans before, right?

ALLYN: Yeah, three courts have looked at this question of whether it's legally possible to ban TikTok in America - twice in the Trump administration, once when Montana tried. All three times, judges have said, no, it is a free-speech violation. The national security case against TikTok is not sufficient to shut down this app. So the courts are definitely on TikTok's side, but we shall see what happens.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR's Bobby Allyn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.