“We may be banning TikTok,” President Donald Trump told reporters late on August 1.
The surprise announcement kicked off a messy saga that is getting closer to an end. Trump signed an executive order that sought to ban TikTok due to national security concerns in 45 days unless the company sells off its U.S. operations to an American owner.
TikTok has been mired in a frenzy of acquisition bids from some of the largest tech giants, a lawsuit against the Trump administration, and an avalanche of controversial events like the departure of its CEO after a mere four-month-long tenure — all the while dealing with the reverberations of being stuck between a geopolitical stand-off between the U.S. and China.
The deadline to sell off TikTok’s operations is Tuesday, September 15, with no deal yet approved. Microsoft, which was believed to be the frontrunner alongside Walmart, has confirmed that Bytedance rejected its bid. This leaves Oracle, which reportedly reached a deal to acquire TikTok’s U.S. business, but this hasn’t been confirmed.
Even then, the deadline itself is hazy. Trump’s executive order pins the deadline to September 20 — which was followed by an extension that pushed the date further back to November 12. But in public appearances, Trump has continued to claim that TikTok will be banned if it doesn’t find a suitor before September 15.
“We’ll either close up TikTok in this country for security reasons or it will be sold. September 15th. There will be no extension of the TikTok deadline,” Trump said last week.
So what would a TikTok ban mean? Will the video app simply stop working once the deadline passes without a deal?
What will really happen if Trump bans TikTok?
Trump, in his August 6 executive order, declared the video app’s operations to be a national emergency and accused it of letting China spy on American citizens by giving it access to “personal and proprietary information” of millions of users.
The order prohibits transactions by any American business or individual with Bytedance, the China-based startup that owns TikTok and its subsidiaries.
What that exactly entails remains unclear. The document doesn’t define these transactions and instead, states after the 45-day deadline, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “shall identify the transactions.”
But this order sounds similar to what the Trump administration drafted against Huawei last year. The U.S. banned American companies from conducting business with Huawei due to alleged security issues and ordered them to terminate their existing relationships.
To do this in TikTok’s case, the United States Department of Commerce could put Bytedance on the “entity list” that would ultimately cut all of the Chinese startup’s commercial ties.
It’s possible that if the ban kicks in, Google and Apple will be forced to take down TikTok from their mobile app stores and advertising firms may have to withdraw their campaigns on TikTok’s nascent, yet flourishing ad network.
On existing phones, depending on the device region and location, TikTok itself could have to block access to its services in the U.S. An internal White House document obtained by Reuters in August suggested a similar set of restrictions as well.
TikTok is also in the middle of building a series of revenue-focused, partner programs. A few days ago, it announced its new marketing program, and last year, launched a developer SDK with partners such as Adobe. These initiatives may shut down — at least in the U.S. — if the app is banned.
Although an app store ban can significantly hamstring TikTok’s business, it will leave room for users to sideload the app through alternative, unofficial sources. Apple heavily restricts this method on iOS, but it’s fairly straightforward on Android. In order to prevent this, there is a chance Trump requests network carriers and gets the Federal Communications Commission involved to bar TikTok’s network traffic and sever the link right from the source.
Doing so will be a major step back for the internet. The U.S. runs one of the most democratic models for the internet and it has never censored an app before. China, for instance, is at the opposite end of the spectrum and blocks many foreign services such as Facebook and YouTube.
But given the increasingly pivotal role tech plays in politics now, several countries, over the years, have gradually shifted towards a more controlled internet. India is one example and in June earlier this year, it executed a sweeping ban over TikTok (and later, PUBG Mobile) blocking it from the app stores as well as network carriers. The only way to access TikTok anymore in India is through its website and that, too, via a VPN.
India has official legislation to ban content and apps it deems a threat to national security. The U.S. doesn’t but we wouldn’t rule its possibility just yet.
So does this mean a significant portion of TikTok’s abilities will be throttled on September 16?
Will TikTok shut down this week?
It’s difficult to say, but it’s unlikely nothing will happen immediately. There are two routes through which Bytedance could even win an extension.
Trump’s order against TikTok could be accused of being written too hastily without necessary specifics.
Once the deadline is passed, the U.S. may draft a more detailed version of the TikTok ban order and grant both Bytedance and its partnering American companies weeks or months of notice to prepare and wrap up their internal contracts and partnerships before pulling the plug permanently.
That will potentially further give Bytedance more time to make its case in court and proceed with its ongoing lawsuit. If anything, the court may ask the Trump administration to present evidence (which it hasn’t done at all so far) and temporarily halt the executive order from going through, leaving TikTok unaffected for now.
Of course, this all also depends on China’s approval.
Last month, in an 11th-hour twist, China updated its list of technologies that are subject to export restrictions to add “recommendation of personalized information services based on data” — the TikTok algorithm, which is essentially the cornerstone of TikTok’s viral success and the piece of software that powers the app’s infinite vertical feed.
Excluding TikTok’s algorithm can seriously cripple a deal and the app’s valuation and recent rumors hint that Bytedance ultimately may not sell at all. Last week, Reuters also reported that China would rather see TikTok shut down altogether than approve a forced sale. Therefore, instead of delving into this myriad of regulatory complications, there is a scenario where Bytedance simply withdraws and lets the number of its growing rivals like Instagram Reels take its place in the U.S.
Whatever the result, it’s clear TikTok will never be the same. Even if a deal goes through, chances are TikTok in the U.S. will run separately and will be cut off from the rest of the world — leading to a severe drop in viewership numbers for creators and advertisers alike.
With competitors such as Instagram and Triller actively investing to capitalize on the situation, TikTok may lose its lead even if it manages to escape a ban. We’ve reached out to TikTok and Oracle for more information and we’ll update the story when we hear back.
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