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A TikTok ban in the United States took a step closer to becoming a reality

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

TikTok is facing what might be its biggest threat yet here in the U.S.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yeah. That's because the House overwhelmingly approved a bill Saturday that could lead to the social media company's ban in the United States. And because it's part of the foreign aid package to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, which also passed over the weekend, it's on the fast track to President Biden's desk.

MARTIN: NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn is covering this story, and he's with us now to tell us more about it. Good morning, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So how did this bill come about in the first place?

ALLYN: Well, TikTok was really caught off guard. It was attached to a large package of aid for Israel and Ukraine. The House tried to pass this once before, and it didn't advance in the Senate. But this time, it is all but guaranteed to become law. The way it came about, though, kind of tucked into this foreign aid package, really sparked some criticism on social media. Let's just say, Michel, some people just thought it was very sneaky.

MARTIN: Now, we've heard a number of lawmakers express real alarm about TikTok, I mean, some calling it a spy balloon in Americans' phones. So just - if you could just set the rhetoric aside for a minute, what are the fears about?

ALLYN: Yeah. Well, the concern is that China, at any time, can ask ByteDance, TikTok's owner, for access to Americans' data and could spy on U.S. citizens. Or China could put their finger on the scale and influence what Americans see on their TikTok feeds, especially worrying ahead of a presidential election. Here's how Florida Republican Kat Cammack framed this bill when it first passed in the House last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAT CAMMACK: We aren't infringing on constitutionally protected speech or growing the size of government. All we're saying is break up with the Chinese Communist Party.

ALLYN: Yeah. And that's something that's become a refrain in Washington. It's worth pointing out, though, that the Chinese Communist Party does not control TikTok or its parent company. But under the country's intelligence laws, TikTok would be legally bound to supply information on you or me or anyone else on TikTok whenever the government asked. For another perspective, here's North Carolina Republican Dan Bishop from last month's debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAN BISHOP: America confronts a great challenge in China, and it will not prevail by becoming more like it.

ALLYN: You know, how can the U.S. condemn authoritarian regimes for shutting down social media sites when here we are trying to do the very same thing? Overall, though, Michel, there really is bipartisan support for cracking down on TikTok.

MARTIN: So next up is the Senate. A vote could come tomorrow, and President Biden has signaled he plans to sign it. What happens then?

ALLYN: Well, once Biden signs it, ByteDance will have a year to sell the company. If it's not sold by then, it will become illegal in the U.S. for TikTok to be carried by any web hosting services. Apple and Google will have to remove it from their app stores, which, in effect, would be a nationwide ban. Now, TikTok is gearing up to take this to court. The company sees this as the suppression of free speech. Bottom line, though, Michel, TikTok will not be disappearing from our phones anytime soon.

MARTIN: And Bobby, before we let you go, how likely is it that TikTok finds a buyer?

ALLYN: That is the big question, but there's two things to consider here - the price and TikTok's algorithm. It's one of the most popular apps in the world, so it's going to be really expensive to buy, maybe more than $100 billion. That limits potential buyers. And the algorithm - China must approve the selling of this algorithm, and China said it will not be doing that. So there's a real question here. What are you even buying if you are trying to buy TikTok, right? To buy a social media app without the algorithm is like trying to buy Coca-Cola without its secret recipe. Who would want to do that?

MARTIN: I don't know. Who would? That is NPR's Bobby Allyn. Bobby, thank you.

ALLYN: Hey, thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SARAH, THE ILLSTRUMENTALIST'S "WHERE THE SUN LIVES") 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.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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.
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