Biden and Congress want to ban TikTok but at this point it may be impossible
As the federal government escalates its efforts against TikTok, it’s coming up against a stark reality: Even a politically united Washington may not have the regulatory and legal powers to wipe TikTok off American phones.
A few weeks ago it looked like the company’s days in America were numbered. President Joe Biden’s administration had just demanded that the Chinese-owned video app be sold or face an outright ban in the United States. That effort quickly drew support from Capitol Hill, and gained momentum after the remarkably bipartisan grilling of the company’s CEO last month — with lawmakers accusing TikTok of serving as a Trojan horse for Beijing to “manipulate America” and suck up reams of sensitive data on U.S. citizens.
But now, interviews with lawmakers, legal and national security experts and former officials in two administrations — including some directly involved in the TikTok effort — suggest that a ban may simply face too many hurdles to ever work. Some insiders are even starting to worry that the government may never be able to meaningfully restrict TikTok’s use — and are considering alternative approaches to mitigate any threat it poses.
“I don’t really care what Congress writes, or what the administration writes. They’re not going to ban TikTok,” said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “They can ban financial transactions, or they can try to force divestiture. But they don’t have the ability to ban TikTok itself.”
The challenges that confront Washington as it works to rein in TikTok compound on each other. Between the company’s steep price tag, antitrust concerns and expected resistance from Beijing, almost no experts believe Washington will be able to force ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese owner, to sell the app. If divestiture fails, the government will need new authorities from Congress to prevent getting laughed out of court when it attempts a direct ban — and there’s no guarantee lawmakers can get on the same page to grant those powers in time for Biden to use them.