Last year, it looked like a TikTok ban was a real possibility.
Former President Donald Trump’s crusade against the wildly popular app turned into a months-long feud between the United States, China, and TikTok. But now, things appear murky at best under the new administration in the White House.
Given the back-and-forth under the Trump White House that spanned months, many users are still wondering about the fate of TikTok in the U.S.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has yet to take a definite stance on the matter, effectively putting a pause on the very long, confusing, legal battle between the three parties.
But Trump’s threat of a ban came after the app had already faced some scrutiny.
TikTok first came under fire when Congress launched a bipartisan investigation into the impact the app had on national security in 2019.
Then-Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) penned a letter questioning if TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, could share user data with the government under Chinese law.
But from day one, TikTok maintained that the app does not share data.
“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the U.S. We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users,” a spokesperson for TikTok told the Daily Dot. “We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”
Regardless, Trump catalyzed the process by signing an executive order promising to ban several Chinese owned apps—including TikTok—in August 2020.
But, the ban proved hard to accomplish, and TikTok is still downloadable for U.S. users today.
Most recently, Biden’s Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the administration is currently working on a policy plan in regards to trade with Chinese companies when she was asked about TikTok in April.
“I don’t want to get into details on any particular company. My broad view is: What we do on offense is more important than what we do on defense,” Raimondo said. “To compete in the long run with China, we need to rebuild America in all of the ways we’re talking about today.”
While things remain unclear, the potential TikTok ban has been a long and winding road.
When did the TikTok ban begin?
Trump began the ban saga by accusing TikTok of supposedly stealing American user data and selling it to China. It was one of many accusations Trump pushed throughout his presidency as a part of the trade war with China.
Coinciding with his “America First” economic strategy, Trump increased tariffs on all products coming into the U.S. with a focus on Chinese imports. As a result, China increased its own tariffs on American goods launching the trade war between the two countries.
TikTok found itself in the middle of the chaos as Trump touted the ban for weeks before signing the August executive order. The company said it was “shocked” by the announcement.
In regards to the collection of user data, TikTok is hardly different from any other social media platform.
“TikTok doesn’t pose any more risk to a user than any other social media sharing application. That isn’t to say that there isn’t risk, but it’s not really different from Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram,” Chester Wisniewski, principal research scientist at Sophos, told Business Insider.
The platform collects metadata like names, date of birth, and app activity—like many other social media sites.
Where TikTok does differ from other platforms is the company that owns it and where it’s located. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is based in China. The concerns about TikTok stemmed from the idea that ByteDance could hand over data to the Chinese government. But TikTok has repeatedly said it shields U.S. data from China by storing it in U.S. servers.
Regardless, TikTok ended up as one of Trump’s enemies. Some have speculated Trump’s ire came as young people were rallying against Trump on the app as the 2020 general election closed in.
Teens planned on TikTok to sign up for a free Trump rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June 2020, trying to artificially inflate the number of people Trump’s campaign expected at the rally.
Whether it was the anti-Trump content or the trade war, Trump quickly had enough with TikTok.
Trump gave the app until Sept. 20 to sell to an American company or face a download ban from app stores. Additionally, he issued a broad operational ban of the app on Nov. 12.
Is a ban on TikTok legal?
Immediately after the executive order, TikTok began to fight the ban in court. It claimed not only was the ban on TikTok unjust, but the time constraints were unreasonable.
“We will continue to challenge the unjust executive order, which was enacted without due process and threatens to deprive the American people and small businesses across the U.S. of a significant platform for both a voice and livelihoods,” a TikTok spokesperson told the New York Times in September 2020.
The app filed a lawsuit against Trump a few weeks after the executive order was signed. It claimed that less than three months was not enough time for the app to sell all of its American assets given that in August there were 100 million American active users.
“The Executive Order issued by the Administration on August 6, 2020 has the potential to strip the rights of that community without any evidence to justify such an extreme action, and without any due process,” TikTok wrote in a blog post.
By the end of September, TikTok had to finalize a partnership with an American company or face a download ban which would effectively remove it from app stores.
For a while, TikTok was looking for an American company to transfer its assets before the deadline banned it from app stores. One of the most popular contenders was Microsoft.
Right around the time of the executive order, Microsoft said that it was participating in discussions about acquiring TikTok’s U.S. operations. Trump appeared to be on board with this idea.
Trump gave the two companies 45 days to hammer out a deal. But, as the conversation between the two companies began, privacy experts began to wonder if TikTok would merely become an “American spying app.”
Nevertheless, just before the deadline, TikTok rejected Microsoft’s proposal.
“ByteDance let us know today they would not be selling TikTok’s U.S. operations to Microsoft,” Microsoft wrote in a statement. “We are confident our proposal would have been good for TikTok’s users, while protecting national security interests.”
Microsoft’s bid wanted to grant the company access to change and maintain the code and algorithms for American users in order to prevent its use by the foreign government. The algorithm on TikTok curates the content on a user’s feed.
“We would have made significant changes to ensure the service met the highest standards for security, privacy, online safety and combating disinformation,” Microsoft said in its statement.
But, China blocked that from happening by passing regulations that prevent a Chinese company from transferring user data to a foreign company without the approval of the government.
Instead, TikTok pivoted to a different American company entirely new to the TikTok ban saga.
Oracle and Walmart join in
On the same day that TikTok turned down Microsoft, it announced computer technology corporation Oracle as its “trusted tech partner.”
Walmart was also included in on the deal being the second runner-up in the bidding war, but very little clarity about the deal was published as compared to Microsoft.
Oracle did confirm that it would provide TikTok with its cloud infrastructure which would allow for TikTok to continue in the U.S..
Trump supported this acquisition calling Oracle a “great company.” But Trump’s connections to the company, namely his relationship with Oracle founder Larry Ellison, quickly came up.
Ellison hosted a fundraiser for Trump in 2020 and executives for the company have visited the White House, according to the New York Times.
But according to Oracle and Trump, the company would maintain a majority stake in U.S. TikTok as soon as the deal came to fruition.
“If we find that (Oracle) doesn’t have total control, then we’re not going to approve the deal,” Trump said.
But it wasn’t going to be that easy for ByteDance to let go of TikTok.
ByteDance immediately responded to Trump and Oracle’s announcements about the deal saying that it would actually maintain an 80% stake in TikTok until the company went public in about a year. Oracle and Walmart would own the other 20%.
The Commerce Department put pressure on the companies to finalize a deal by announcing that if nothing happened by Sept. 20, TikTok would face a download ban and it would be inoperable by Nov. 12.
But, that was not enough time for a final deal especially with conflicting interests between ByteDance and Oracle, and the U.S. and China.
TikTok and ByteDance as well as content creators on the app filed lawsuits in hopes of beating the ban.
TikTok creators Douglas Marland, Cosette Rinab, and Alec Chambers said in their lawsuit that the Department of Commerce was “violating the first and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and exceeds the president’s statutory authority.”
Eventually, the U.S. extended the download ban just one week for Oracle, Walmart, and TikTok to work something out.
The courts stepped in
In order to get more time, TikTok filed a request for an injunction to delay the deadline.
“As explained herein, Plaintiffs have made extraordinary efforts to try to satisfy the government’s ever-shifting demands and purported national security concerns, including through changes in the ownership and structure of their business, and they are continuing to do so,” the request said.
The app also cited that Trump had been “targeting” the app after the Tulsa rally embarrassment.
In the final hours, one federal judge took to TikTok’s case.
On the day of Trump’s deadline, Judge Carl Nichols of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia granted the app’s request for an injunction and told the government that it had one week to extend the deadline or the validity of the ban would be considered in court.
It saved TikTok for a few more weeks. But the next deadline in November still loomed.
Yet another deadline
After Biden won the 2020 election, the pressure on the TikTok deal fizzled out as the country went through a transition (and ultimately false claims of a stolen election).
On Nov. 12, the Department of Commerce said it would comply with an injunction granted by U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone to the content creator’s lawsuit at the end of October.
But, the Justice Department filed an appeal against Beetestone’s ruling—thus scratching a new deadline.
Instead, Judge Nichols stepped in and set the ban dates as Dec. 14 and 28 in the lawsuit of ByteDance against the Trump administration.
Disregarding that, Trump said Dec. 4 was their new deadline for the ban.
In response, Nichols granted an injunction for TikTok as Trump’s date came and went. Later in December, Trump filed an appeal against Nichols’ decision that blocked his deadline.
Will there be a TikTok ban under Biden?
In Trump’s final days, he had shifted all focus toward recounting the election results and the COVID-19 vaccine as it was reaching its final stages of approval. It left many wondering what would happen to TikTok under Biden, especially after this long, confusing path in U.S. courts.
Biden hasn’t made his stance quite clear yet, but he isn’t necessarily on TikTok’s side.
“I think that it’s a matter of genuine concern that TikTok, a Chinese operation, has access to over 100 million young people particularly in the United States of America,” Biden said in September according to Reuters.
But, the new trade policy as it relates to China should be released soon and give a clearer picture on the fate of TikTok.
In the meantime, there are actors in the U.S. government still trying to finish what Trump started.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is working to ban U.S. government workers from having TikTok on government devices. Hawley describes the app as “an immediate security threat.”
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee agreed and unanimously passed the bill. The bill still awaits votes in both chambers of Congress.
“This should not be a partisan issue and I’m glad to see my colleagues in the Senate act together to address Beijing’s covert data collection campaign,” Hawley said in a statement.
The bill will now face further vote in the Senate. Some members of Congress like Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.), Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) have official TikTok accounts, but it’s unclear if those accounts are held on government devices.
If a ban eventually happens, users have already come up with ways to bypass it. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) hide a computer’s IP address which would allow users to connect to TikTok on an internet browser, but not on the app.
This story will be updated as the legal battle continues.