- TikTok's is facing choppy waters in the United States, as President Donald Trump and his administration amp up threats to ban the app in the US.
- Although the Trump administration has painted a ban on TikTok as a simple action, experts told Business Insider it's not so easy.
- Experts say there are other actions Trump could take, such as adding TikTok to the same banned "Entity List" that Huawei is on, or by declaring a "national emergency" that would give him "broad authority" over foreign business transactions.
- These other possible actions Trump could take, however, raise concerns about violations of First Amendment rights, as well as how effective they would be in actually restricting TikTok in the US.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
New details about the US government's plan to ban TikTok has brought a renewed sense of urgency for TikTok to make a deal before the Sunday night deadline.
The Commerce Department expanded further Friday morning on the details of TikTok's imminent Sept. 20 ban, which bars all new app downloads and software updates for existing users. But the reality, multiple experts say, is that any enacted ban would take extraordinary legal steps — and still not actually keep Americans from using the app.
Nevertheless, the ban has sent users scrambling to download TikTok and waiting with baited breath on the Trump administration's review of the TikTok takeover bid, which is designed to put to rest lasting national-security concerns and reverse the platform's ban.
A nationwide ban on a platform is an unprecedented move in the US, but that hasn't stopped Trump from repeatedly insisting since July he would take action against TikTok. TikTok's ties to China through its Chinese-based parent company, ByteDance, has long brought the Trump administration's questions around how much access the Chinese government is afforded to American users' data.
Friday's announcement from the Commerce Department is the first time the US government has revealed particulars about its plans for TikTok, and the first time it's specifically called out Google and Apple to take action to help enact its ban.
But as legal experts told Business Insider in early August, this path of action was just one of the workarounds the US government can try to pursue to get the same outcome as a ban — without imposing one outright. These routes are still fraught with significant challenges and roadblocks, including potential violations First Amendment rights and questions of how effective they would actually be in blocking TikTok.
On a technical level, a ban is daunting. It's unclear what authority the US government has to order Apple and Google remove TikTok from their app stores, or what action will be taken against the two companies if they don't comply.
The Commerce Department's order goes further to set a Nov. 12 date to try to effectively ban TikTok completely, by barring internet service providers and content delivery networks from providing services to TikTok.
Legal experts say this attack on TikTok targets the app at the "network-level" — something never done before in the US, but commonly used by the Chinese government to block citizens from accessing platforms like Facebook and Google behind its "Great Firewall" of internet censorship.
"The idea of blocking IP addresses is very common. The idea of blocking entire platforms because of sanctions has never happened before," cybersecurity lawyer Mark Rasch told Business Insider. "It's the Great Firewall against China."
So, what can the Trump administration do?
Rasch, a former Justice Department prosecutor, said TikTok's status as an app and "not a 'product' or a 'company' in the traditional sense" raises "significant practical concerns" about what the Trump administration can achieve using executive orders and existing national-security policy.
One alternative would be to block communication between TikTok servers and US users at the "network level," as The Verge's Adi Robertson reported — the same method the Chinese government uses to block popular platforms, like Facebook and Google, behind its "Great Firewall" of internet censorship.
"He can't outright 'ban' TikTok itself," Kyle Langvardt, a law professor at the University of Detroit, told Business Insider last month. "But he can interfere so heavily with TikTok's business that an American TikTok clone will replace it."
The US government has never before taken such definitive action against a smartphone application. Three law professors who spoke with Business Insider argued that because TikTok is classified as "software," the platform could be covered by the First Amendment. This classification would make a TikTok ban an "unconstitutional restriction of speech," according to Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University.
That leaves only a few options for how Trump's threat of a ban could actually be put into practice. Originally, reports suggested the administration was considering an executive order that would instruct ByteDance to "divest" TikTok's operations in the US. That could only be carried out at the conclusion of the ongoing federal review of TikTok's national-security risks, which the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) has been conducting since late 2019.
The CFIUS review focuses on ByteDance's 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, a popular social network that was later merged into TikTok in the US. A 1988 law allows the president to cite CFIUS findings on national-security risks as a reason to shut down foreign business transactions involving companies conducting interstate commerce in the US.
Trump has twice used this authority to block deals in which tech corporations from China and Singapore were poised to take over US-based companies. And last year, CFIUS ordered the Chinese parent company of the gay dating app Grindr to sell the platform because the deal had not been submitted to CFIUS for review when it happened — the same justification for allowing CFIUS to review of the ByteDance and Musical.ly deal.
CFIUS has yet to release its findings on TikTok, but an executive order based on those findings wouldn't be the same as a US-wide ban.
Experts say there are two other options Trump could pursue to achieve an outcome similar to a ban. One would involve adding TikTok and ByteDance to the US Commerce Department's Entity List, the blacklist of foreign companies — which includes other major Chinese tech companies — banned from doing business with US entities.
Chinese smartphone makers Huawei and ZTE are already on the list after the US government accused both of plotting to spy on the US via their products. But without other smartphone apps on the list to set precedent for what could happen with TikTok, experts say enforcing any restrictions could be difficult.
"It's unclear if simply adding TikTok to that list would be enough," says Jen Golbeck, an information studies professor at the University of Maryland. "The concerns about national security are theoretical, but there's no evidence that those concerns have played out. Singling out TikTok and banning it would almost certainly be arbitrary and capricious."
The president could also deploy the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The IEEPA gives Trump the authority to declare a national emergency, during which he has "broad authority" to regulate foreign economic transactions. In an executive order implemented last year, Trump used the IEEPA to give the administration the ability to interfere in any business transaction involving "information and communications technology or services" that "otherwise pose an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States or the security and safety of United States persons."
That could apply to TikTok. However, Langvardt, the University of Detroit law professor points to part of the IEEPA where it specifically says the president cannot regulate "information or informational materials" exchanged between Americans and foreign companies.
ByteDance faces an uncertain future, but American TikTok users don't
Even if a ban would be technically and legally difficult, the growing uncertainty in TikTok's future has led ByteDance to explore alternatives to pursue to order to avoid a ban in the US, where the app has at least 100 million monthly users. TikTok was most recently valued between an estimated $30 billion and $50 billion, according to news reports.
Trump has set a deadline of September 20 for ByteDance to hash out a deal with a US buyer. Afterward, Trump insists his administration will then take steps to ban the app in the US — but he's yet to clearly explain exactly how that ban would work.
Until then, American TikTok users should have no fear of a future where they can't waste an evening scrolling through endless content on their For You page.