How the TikTok ban in the US would work and the challenges that arise

  • If TikTok is banned in the US, connecting to the app won’t be as easy as using a virtual private network.
  • The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) has threatened to shut down TikTok if ByteDance does not sell its stake.
  • Any ban on TikTok in the US may have to involve removing it from mobile app stores.
The TikTok logo is displayed outside the offices of social media app company TikTok in Culver City, California, on March 16, 2023.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

TikTok is at risk of being banned in the US if its Chinese parent ByteDance does not sell its stake. Millions of Americans who use the popular video app are left wondering what that means for them.

Some fans of the service can turn to virtual private networks (VPNs) to try to connect to TikTok in the event of a ban, an operation that can make it appear that their Internet connection is from a different country. But that opportunity may not be easy to use.

It’s not a problem yet, as there are still other ways to circumvent the TikTok ban or get around it legally in the US. Here are some important things to consider.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) is an interagency body that examines national security concerns around the operating system to determine how to mitigate the risks if it continues to operate internally. The group would recommend to President Joe Biden that ByteDance’s 2017 purchase of, the predecessor to TikTok, be completed, forcing the sale of those assets.

TikTok touted the discount program as an alternative to forced sales. But that’s a long shot since CFIUS is already threatening a ban if ByteDance won’t sell its stake.

Compulsory sales will be a complex process, requiring that age-old transactions be completed. The Trump administration has pursued that route before to no avail. The Chinese government may object again, but it will have to be careful in its protests because the core of its dispute with the US is that TikTok operates independently.

“That would be part of the equation and how aggressively China would want to respond,” said Lindsay Gorman, chief emerging technology officer at Germany’s Marshall Fund Alliance for Securing Democracy. Gormany previously served as a senior adviser in the Biden White House.

If it is possible for the US to block TikTok, the mechanics of what happens there become murky. Oracle is a cloud hosting service for all TikTok usage for US internet service providers such as Comcast (parent company of NBC Universal) and Verizon’s direct end-user traffic. And the app stores controlled by Apple and Google are the main places for consumers to download the TikTok app.

Shannon Reaves, a partner on Stroock’s CFIUS team, said any requirement for a third party would not come from CFIUS, which is tasked with evaluating foreign investments on its own.

“There will be no action from CFIUS as a result of this review that will be taken against third parties who are not parties to this transaction,” Reaves said. “So your Apples and your Googles and so on, that’s not going to happen.”

The government may have to resort to legislation or executive orders to get app distributors, ISPs and cloud services to block access to TikTok.

While there may always be a crack that can be exploited by a small set of computer-literate users, the average consumer may find it difficult to access a government-restricted service, said Douglas Schmidt, an engineering professor at Vanderbilt.

“There’s probably always going to be a way around this,” Schmidt said. “It would be very difficult for the average person to do it without getting an advanced degree in computer security or something.”

In other words, a VPN won’t be enough, in part because going that route would still require app store credentials, which would indicate the user’s location. Gerald Kasulis, vice president at NordVPN, said there is also technology available to detect when a user is trying to access an app through a VPN.

Concerns about TikTok’s security risk boil down to two key issues. The first is who has access to US consumers’ information and the second is who has the ability to decide what information reaches US users. Under Chinese law, companies may be required to provide internal information to the government for national security purposes.

TikTok has sought to assure the US government that US users’ data is stored outside of China. The company has established an elaborate program known as Project Texas that includes oversight of its code in the US and a separate board of directors for a domestic subsidiary, with members reviewed by the US government.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who will testify in front of a US House panel next week, told the Wall Street Journal that the Texas Project will do everything it can to resolve any security issues.

But the situation in Washington is not in favor of TikTok, and lawmakers have lost any trust they may have had in China and its motives. That issue resurfaced earlier this year, when an alleged Chinese spy balloon was seen flying over the US Biden’s commanding military to shoot down the balloon last month.

When it comes to consumer technology, users don’t know what information goes to the Chinese government. And the US government has a lot of work to do to provide clarity on what will happen if the app is blocked.

“Even for someone who’s learning these things, it’s not easy to disconnect and delete all these apps,” Gorman said. “As a society, we haven’t decided whether app stores, the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store, should limit apps based on the amount of information they collect. It can’t be imposed on anyone and really needs to be addressed by governments.”

While many users might think that their casual social media use would be of little interest to foreign governments, Schmidt said the data can be incredibly valuable to bad actors.

“Having information about your habits and your interests and your interactions and where you go and what you do can be used for things like phishing to get access to more information, or things like illegal, if you do things that you may not want other people to know,” Schmidt said.

It is an unknown place for US companies, unlike China, which blocks access to all kinds of content, including many US online services.

“Trying to get information from the police is very difficult, especially when there are suspicions that the people who are doing this have a reason to do it,” said Schmidt. “And they are highly motivated to collect this information and use it for all kinds of purposes.”

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