May 26, 2024


A bill banning TikTok, unless it is sold, passed through the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday and is on its way to the Senate. The bill being rushed through Congress names TikTok outright, but it also bans other apps the President determines to be a “national security threat.” Technology lawyers are concerned these vague terms could get other apps and websites banned as well.

“Nobody actually knows who’s covered by this bill,” said Eric Goldman, an internet law professor at Santa Clara University in a phone interview with Gizmodo. “We focus on the TikTok piece because that’s obviously who would be targeted first. But this law has uncertain effects because we really don’t even know who we’re talking about.”

Outside of banning TikTok, this bill is anything but clear. An app or website must meet two qualifications to be banned. First, the app must allow users to create profiles for sharing content. That would include Gizmodo’s website, where users log in to post comments, for example. Second, you must also be “controlled by a foreign adversary,” which could include an app that is merely “subject to the direction or control” of someone in Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran.

Goldman says this bill doesn’t consider how many apps and websites fall under it. He’s joined by 65 House Congressional members who voted against this bill, many of whom say the legislation doesn’t consider freedom of speech or claim it was rushed — the bill lasted just four days in the House. Goldman calls the bill a “performative stunt” that’s meant to send a signal to voters on China.

You could make the case that a lot of apps fall under the TikTok ban. Russian operatives used Facebook groups to influence voters in the 2016 election. Just months ago, on Elon Musk’s X, the Iran-backed terror group Hamas spread misinformation while paying for promotion services and blue checkmarks. Would Facebook and X be “subject to the direction or control” of Russia and Iran under the TikTok bill’s definition?

“There’s plenty of room here for creative interpretation for how someone could be in a foreign country calling the shots without being an owner,” said Evan Brown, a Chicago-based lawyer with a focus on technology. “The President really has the unchecked power to put another app on this list.”

The TikTok bill can ban apps with as few as one million monthly users, which is roughly the size of tiny apps like Mastodon. For reference, TikTok is roughly one thousand times bigger, with one billion monthly users. The wide range of apps covered by the TikTok bill, and the vague terms to categorize them as “controlled by a foreign adversary” gives the President a lot of power.

The entire discussion for this bill has been around TikTok, but legal experts point out how this will impact America’s app ecosystem. Currently, the President and Congress have almost no power over what apps can and cannot exist, but the TikTok bill changes that. The legislation may pass through Congress quickly, but reversing the decision is a much slower process.

To be clear, TikTok has been no darling to anyone other than its parent company Bytedance. The app confirmed Congressional fears this past week by launching a push notification campaign and asking users to call lawmakers to fight this bill. A Chinese foreign ministry official said a TikTok ban would “come back to bite the United States,” on Wednesday. There are legitimate claims about banning TikTok, but this bill is bigger than that.

This is not the first TikTok bill we’ve seen, but it could be the last, and we’ll have to live with the consequences of that if it’s written into law. The key factor now is if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer brings it to the floor. Schumer indicated he won’t rush the bill, and it remains to be seen if senators will consider how the TikTok bill is not only about TikTok.

A version of this story originally appeared on Gizmodo.



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