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Lawmakers have a new plan to force ByteDance to sell TikTok

A group of lawmakers have introduced a new bill that would force ByteDance to sell TikTok in order for the app to remain available in the United States. The “Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act” would prohibit US app stores and web hosting services from distributing TikTok unless it divested from parent company ByteDance.

The bill is the latest in a long line of attempts by lawmakers and other officials to ban or force a sale of the app. Former President Donald Trump attempted to force a sale of TikTok in 2020, but was ultimately unsuccessful. The Biden Administration has also pressured the company to divest. And a US District Court Judge recently blocked an attempt to ban the app in Montana.

The new bill, which comes from a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House, takes a different approach. It would give ByteDance a six-month window to sell TikTok before app store-level bans would come into effect. It would also require TikTok and other apps to “provide users with a copy of their data in a format that can be imported” into competing apps. And though TikTok is referenced several times in the text of the bill, the legislation would open the door for bans on other “foreign adversary-controlled” apps if the president deemed them to be a national security threat.

“This bill is an outright ban of TikTok, no matter how much the authors try to disguise it,” TikTok said in a statement. “This legislation will trample the First Amendment rights of 170 million Americans and deprive 5 million small businesses of a platform they rely on to grow and create jobs.”

TikTok CEO Shou Chew has maintained that a divestment would not fully address officials’ concerns about US user data. The company has spent years trying to address national security concerns about its service with an initiative called Project Texas. Under the plan, created as a result of years of negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), US users’ data would be separated into US-based servers and government officials would be able to oversee audits of TikTok’s source code and other aspects of its operations.

The Washington Post reported last year that TikTok’s negotiations with CFIUS had been recently “revived amid doubts the [Biden] administration has the authority to ban TikTok on its own.” If Congress was able to pass the new bill, it would clear up such questions and create a new process for forcing ByteDance’s hand.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other digital rights groups have criticized the government’s efforts to ban TikTok. In a statement on the latest bill, the ACLU said the proposed measure was “unconstitutional” and would hurt free speech. “Just because the bill sponsors claim that banning TikTok isn’t about suppressing speech, there’s no denying that it would do just that,” senior policy counsel Jenna Leventoff said.

Columbia University’s nonprofit Knight First Amendment Institute raised similar concerns. “Congress can protect data privacy and security without banning Americans from accessing one of the world’s most popular communications platforms,” the organization’s executive director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement. “It should start by passing a comprehensive privacy law restricting the kinds of information that TikTok and other platforms can collect.”

Update March 5, 2024 6:50 PM ET: This story has been updated to add comments from the ACLU and Knight First Amendment Institute.