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Let's say TikTok is banned tomorrow by Congress. How would they be able to actually enforce the ban, assuming TikTok refused to cooperate?

  1. They could definitely convince Apple and Google to remove it from their app stores, however there's also a browser version and Android phones support sideloading apps.
  2. They certainly could ban payments to TikTok's accounts but this doesn't stop people from viewing or uploading content to their website. And there's always crypto and other ways to get around US sanctions.
  3. They could potentially demand that ISPs block access to TikTok.com, however it seems like this would run afoul of the First Amendment.
  4. They could issue a cease-and-desist order via a US court but presumably China would refuse to enforce it in any shape or form.
  5. I guess they could issue a law making it a criminal offense to access TikTok but this seems like an even more blatant First Amendment violation.

Have there been any discussions in Congress about how exactly the ban would be enforced?

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    Regarding point 3, the US regularly seizes domains. Random example justice.gov/usao-dc/pr/… Mar 28, 2023 at 17:48
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    Is this a political question or a technical question?
    – gerrit
    Mar 29, 2023 at 7:09
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    @gerrit purely political. On a technical level everything is clear. Mar 29, 2023 at 12:16
  • Comments deleted. I would like to remind everyone of the purposes of the commenting privilege. For our regular community members this reminder should be unnecessary, but for some of them it apparently is.
    – Philipp
    Mar 31, 2023 at 14:17
  • "purely political. On a technical level everything is clear" - ah, that makes sense now. Good one.
    – Fattie
    Apr 1, 2023 at 0:44

6 Answers 6

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Keep in mind that it isn't necessary to fully ban it. Impairing a global Internet social media firm's reach is in the horseshoes and hand grenades domain where a moderately close to the target and imperfect ban is good enough to get the job done.

TikTok is a for profit enterprise. If U.S. operations become less profitable, then it won't have a reason to continue U.S. operations.

"TikTok primarily makes money through advertising, thus making it an attention-based business model."

(Source)

In particular, from the same source, it is the sixth highest generator of digital advertising revenues in the world.

A lot of that digital advertising revenue is from firms seeking to win over U.S. customers (mostly, U.S. firms or firms that do business in the U.S., often publicly held firms, and some of whom are governmental entities). The U.S. sourced advertising revenues of TikTok are about $6 billion a year in 2023. This is a majority of its $10 billion a year global advertising revenues.

Moreover, most of that business is brokered through intermediary digital advertising agencies which are easy regulatory targets. There are 45,000 digital advertising agencies in the U.S. and it isn't a particularly concentrated industry, but you could still have a huge impact just by targeting the top 100 of them or so - which is vastly easier than targeting the many tens of millions of U.S. users of TikTok.

A U.S. firm that advertises on TikTok, or a digital advertising agency with U.S. business that brokers advertising on TikTok, if TikTok is banned, is an easy enforcement target and mostly, publicly held companies and governmental entities comply with the law voluntarily as a matter of their broad, overall business policies/standard operating procedures.

Simply requiring each digital advertising agency to have its CEO certify under penalty of perjury that it doesn't do business with TikTok once a quarter on a one page form with no auditing except whistleblower driven enforcement would be more than enough to get mass compliance from the industry before really digging into serious enforcement investigations and prosecutions.

Throw in similar certificates of compliance from publicly held companies in their regularly quarterly reports and from governmental agencies, and you'd be well on your way to an effective ban.

Without revenues from firms and governments vulnerable to U.S. sanctions sending their advertising dollars to TikTok, U.S. operations just don't make sense for the platform and it will die (or dwindle to irrelevance) in the U.S. market.

Even if people who go out of their way can still access TikTok, if it isn't a source of revenue for the company, and if is less of a source of exposure for users who use it to get the word out about themselves, the ban would still work.

It doesn't necessarily take all that much of a nudge. TikTok is basically a fad that needs continued momentum to survive. If interrupted long enough, people will find alternatives and those users will be hard to win back.

For example, Windows Internet Explorer went from market dominance to irrelevance (despite being only slightly different from its competitors) with a far milder nudge from regulators - simply easing tying arrangements between operating system software and browsers due to anti-trust enforcement.

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    The problem is that it's alleged that TikTok is effectively China's propaganda machine. If that's true, China would likely force them to continue operations at a loss. The question is whether or not legislators are willing to go ahead and demand that ISPs block TikTok.com - if they don't, the website would still be easily accessible to every American. Mar 29, 2023 at 0:35
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    Aside from the advertising revenue, remember that tiktok relies on being popular with its content creators. It's not like internet explorer gets dramatically less usable once it has less users. So yes, there's advertising drop off, but also probably if you find a bunch of the video creators use an easier platform like instagram reels, the attraction for users would drop dramatically too Mar 29, 2023 at 2:14
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    Also if they knock out the funding source and TikTok keeps trying to operate in America while operating at a loss that will provide evidence that its not a for-profit organisation, which might allow more severe approaches to be taken against TikTok. Mar 29, 2023 at 7:58
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    @BugCatcherNakata: On a slight tangent, Internet Explorer did sort of experience a similar "critical mass" effect, just indirectly. It was different enough internally from other browsers at the time that website developers often had to spend considerable extra effort to make their sites work in both IE and other browsers. That was almost certainly at least partly by design, since as long as IE was the dominant browser, the easy way out for many developers was to only support IE. But as soon as IE lost that dominant position, the easy path suddenly became "follow the standards and screw IE". Mar 29, 2023 at 11:05
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    @wonderbear I could be wrong, but I don't think TikTok is intended to spy on users, it's just a useful side benefit of a popular app.
    – Barmar
    Mar 29, 2023 at 14:26
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Have there been any discussions in Congress about how exactly the ban would be enforced?

To answer the Q narrowly, there are several legislative proposals and I haven't read of any of them myself, but according to NBC:

While the senators behind the [RESTRICT] bill introduced it as a way to potentially ban TikTok, it isn’t clear exactly how that would happen. It would give the Secretary of Commerce a broader power to ban foreign technology in cases in which the U.S. believed it posed a national security threat. How that authority would be wielded is still up for debate, however. A spokesperson for the Commerce Department declined to discuss details on how the agency is considering that power.

I.e. the most popular proposal right now appears to pass the buck to the executive for the best way to achieve this, rather than legislators getting into the details.

OTOH Vox says that IEEPA would be the more likely avenue, but essentially still leaves it to the executive to find the concrete means to implement the ban.

The most viable path as of now is using the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which gives the president broader powers than he otherwise has. President Trump used this when he tried to ban TikTok in 2020, and lawmakers have since introduced TikTok-banning bills that essentially call for the current president to try again, but this time with additional measures in place that might avoid the court battles that stalled Trump’s attempt.

Trump’s ban attempt does give us some guidance on what such a ban would look like, however. The Trump administration spelled out some examples of banned transactions, including app stores not being allowed to carry it and internet hosting services not being allowed to host it. If you have an iPhone, it’s exceedingly difficult to get a native app on your phone that isn’t allowed in Apple’s App Store — or to get updates for that app if you downloaded it before this hypothetical ban came down. It’s also conceivable that companies would be prohibited from advertising on the app and content creators wouldn’t be able to use TikTok’s monetization tools.

There are considerable civil and criminal penalties for violating the IEEPA. Don’t expect Apple or Google or Mr. Beast to do so.

Whether this would be constitutional or not in the US I'm not going to get into here [if that's the Q you should ask separately], but simply in technical terms India managed it pretty easily

India is the largest country to have entirely banned TikTok, having blocked dozens of mostly Chinese apps in 2020. Shortly following the ban, India’s Department of Telecommunications ordered internet and wireless service providers to block the apps, TikTok among them.

Soon after that, some TikTok users in India said the app no longer had any functionality.

And there is a screenshot included, which is a bit pointless to reproduce though.

Yeah, people can work around some of those measures, but unlike for [digital] piracy or drug-selling sites, there are near-equivalents for TikTok, so the appetite to use underground means to see short but legal videos is pretty debatable.

Three years later, it looks like TikTok fired all their remaining India employees:

a TikTok spokesperson said, “We have taken the decision to close our India remote sales support hub, which was put in place at the end of 2020 to provide support to our global and regional sales teams.” [...]

TikTok’s exit prompted many Indian platforms such as MX Takatak, Josh, Moj and others to fill up the space left behind by TikTok. Further, Meta-owned Instagram’s short video platform Reels and YouTube’s YouTube Shorts also took a significant share of the Indian market.

There's a more detailed article/blog for those interested in the details of how the Indian market in theat niche then developed. (FWTW, according to another piece, TikTok had over 1,000 employees in India some two years prior, as well as 200 million active Indian users. I was not able to find any stats for TikTok unofficial/underground use in India, after the ban.)

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    And this isn't exactly apples to apples, but compare with how "easy" it is to use a Huawei phone in the US nowadays reddit.com/r/Huawei/comments/sc9ups/… Mar 28, 2023 at 23:07
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    India is a in a bit of a different league because they don't have a First Amendment and have banned various websites for many years. For the US it would be the very first website in history to be blocked. Literally no other country has free speech protections as powerful as those in the US. Mar 29, 2023 at 0:32
  • Piracy definitely has an equivalent given that it's theft of digital assets that could presumably be acquired elsewhere. Disney+ or netflix for example. Easy alternatives dont mean they'll be used Mar 29, 2023 at 9:57
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    @JonathanReez In the history of TV media for example, the US managed, or even manages still, to be quite pushy about what "could be said on the air". Not sure how that avoided 1st Amendment issues. Maybe self-censorship as opposed to govt censorship? But I wonder how much traction a foreign entity would get on 1st amendment grounds with a national security component. Mar 29, 2023 at 21:03
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica It is actually quite simple: when TV and radio happened the government simply decided to throw the first amendment straight out the window. Mostly these "amendments" only apply to whoever the government thinks they should apply to. Mar 30, 2023 at 10:50
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It will be easier to block then you think.

  1. From my understanding in order to side load on an apple device you have to have a jailbroken device which isn't that common. On an android device it is easier but it still isn't common for people to side load apps on devices.

  2. Both companies could add blocks to those sites at the root level of the device to help enforce it.

  3. ISP's have been asked to block other content before and the matter of it being constitutional will depend on the entire ban being constitutional or not. If they are allowed to block it they can ask ISP's to enforce it.

    1. The government could just seize the domain which is something that they have done in the past for other sites. (adding this in response to a comment on the Question by Fizz)
  4. Not sure what this is suggesting if the question is assuming that TikTok won't cooperate in the first place.

To be honest no matter how hard they work on banning it people will be able to get around it to get to TikTok. The only change would be the number of users would be much much lower then it would without the ban in place.

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    2010: China bans Google. 2023: The USA bans TikTok? Many people thought China was becoming more like the United States before then, but perhaps the opposite is the case....
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 28, 2023 at 18:38
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    Indeed, as the last paragraph points out, whenever something considered harmful for a society is banned, the main goal is not that it would be completely impossible for anyone to access it. If the number of users is drastically reduced, it is already considered a success.
    – vsz
    Mar 29, 2023 at 6:32
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    @JoeW sideloading in Android is much easier and does not require jailbreak. You only need to get the APK file from elsewhere (e.g. the app website instead of Google Play). People do it all the time.
    – fraxinus
    Mar 29, 2023 at 6:35
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    @fraxinus I didn't say it required jail break, just that it wasn't that common as people tend to think due to the risks associated with sideloading an app from an unknown source and the fact that you have to make system settings to allow it.
    – Joe W
    Mar 29, 2023 at 12:43
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If TikTok is banned in the US, we have to assume that the law makers have determined a legal way to do it. In such a case, past US actions provide a glimpse to how easily TikTok can be blocked in the US:

  1. Ban it from Apple and Google app stores.
  2. Instruct ISPs to block TikTok server.
  3. Blacklist TikTok on US payment services.
  4. Blacklist TikTok on US banking services (to prevent US TikTok creators from earning money from TikTok).

Note that India has banned TikTok and it did so to "protect" user data privacy and national security:

India's Ministry of Information Technology said it was banning the 59 Chinese apps after receiving "many complaints from various sources" about apps that were "stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users' data in an unauthorised manner". "The compilation of these data, its mining and profiling by elements hostile to national security and defence of India, which ultimately impinges upon the sovereignty and integrity of India, is a matter of very deep and immediate concern which requires emergency measures," the ministry said. - India bans TikTok, WeChat and dozens more Chinese apps

The Indian government said the decision to ban the apps was in order to protect the data and privacy of its 1.3 billion citizens and put a stop to technology that was “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorised manner to servers outside India”. - India blacklists more than 50 Chinese-made apps, citing ‘threat to sovereignty’

Citing "National security" as a reason is often enough to trump most fundamental rights and delay a thorough judicial review.

(Note though that the real and current motivations of the US behind this public scrutiny of TikTok / Bytedance is to economically pressure and threaten China to not assist Russian war efforts in Ukraine. Temporarily banning TikTok, and other Chinese apps, could very well be part of the "US sanctions" against China if it supplies weapons and munitions to Russia. This is very obvious because if user data privacy was a genuine concern of the US law makers, the right answer to that is to make stronger privacy laws and regulations, like Europe did. But such US laws would also impede American BigTechs like Google, Microsoft, Meta, Apple, Amazon etc. from spying on its users.)

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  • #1, #3 and #4 are perfectly doable. #2 is likely to turn into a protracted legal battle as it would be a huge challenge to the First Amendment. So I'm interested to see if that's actually what's being proposed. Mar 29, 2023 at 0:33
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    @JonathanReez I don't think so. Blocking a foreign platform doesn't impede right to free speech as it is an isolated act for specific reason and there are plenty of viable alternatives. Moreover, when it is done so due to violation of other laws, it won't be protected under the first amendment. For example, the US frequently blocks piracy websites all the time because piracy is illegal. TikTok is likely to be blocked under data privacy laws or even national security concerns (spying on US military and government officials) or even under US military sanctions (helping Russia).
    – sfxedit
    Mar 29, 2023 at 0:42
  • @JonathanReez Also, I'd like to point out that TikTok was earlier temporarily banned in India by the indian courts itself, once before, for pornographic / child pornography content - gadgets360.com/apps/news/…
    – sfxedit
    Mar 29, 2023 at 0:49
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    @sfxedit - No? Websites like The Pirate Bay continue to be perfectly accessible from the US. They are not blocked (and indeed could not be blocked effectively without highly intrusive surveillance). Perhaps you are thinking of cases in which domains have been seized as part of arrests and so forth.
    – Obie 2.0
    Mar 29, 2023 at 1:26
  • @Obie2.0 Torrent sites (like tpb) are legally difficult to block because they don't host the content directly. But the DMCA act, which can be used to remove specific copyright content, can also be used to get whole websites blocked if they don't comply with DMCA requests - US Court Orders Every ISP in the United States to Block Illegal Streaming Sites.
    – sfxedit
    Mar 29, 2023 at 1:46
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There is a saying among some IT people.

"There is no cloud. There are just other peoples' computers."

Those computers cost a real lot of money. So does the specialized software and the manpower. Users pay by subscription fees for services, or they pay by giving their data to advertisers. If TikTok were to be cut off from the US advertising market, and if it would continue to spend millions to operate "free" services for US consumers, it would be obvious that it is being subsidized by a third party. Even more oblivious users might ask why.

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    ... they might ask why and then what happens? Mar 28, 2023 at 20:03
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    nah, this exactly the "you're kill the small biz on TikTok" argm that you'd trigger with this prop Mar 28, 2023 at 20:07
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    @alamar YouTube's parent company (Meta) got 1.5% of its revenue from Russia before the Ukraine War. seekingalpha.com/article/… But TikTok gets 60% of its revenue from U.S. oriented ads.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:54
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    Twitch (which is owned by Amazon.com) is also a drop in the bucket. "Twitch in-app revenue in Russia sharply fell in March 2022 and April 2022 due to restrictions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Twitch stopped paying streamers with Russian bank accounts at the beginning of March 2022. To compare, in January 2022, the in-app revenue of the streaming platform in Russia reached approximately 109 thousand U.S. dollars." statista.com/statistics/1232599/russia-twitch-app-revenue Yet, Twitch is a $2.8 billion revenue business. businessofapps.com/data/twitch-statistics
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 28, 2023 at 22:58
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    @ohwilleke: Just for the record, youtube is owned by Google (now Alphabet). Meta is Facebook etc.. Both parent companies have broad and/or meaningless names that hint at being all-encompassing, but they're still distinct last I checked. :P Mar 29, 2023 at 19:37
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Most of the phone apps are installed from the centralized portals ran by either Apple or Google. Any app which is not distributed by those portals can only exist as a technical niche. It cannot gain traction in the general market.

Simply creating laws which would make it illegal to make money from distributing apps which allow for US phone users' private data to be stored in China would make TicToc impossible to distribute legally.

Congress can regulate commerce and it can regulate what companies do with users' private data. Together that's enough to give it the authority to craft such a ban.

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  • StackExchange shutdown their mobile app a while back and this website is still alive and well :-) TikTok already has a fully functional web version. The question is what happens if ByteDance refuses to cooperate and keeps TikTok.com open to US users. Apr 2, 2023 at 22:48
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    @JonathanReez You can't compare those two because they have very different target demographics with very different technology habits. Stack Exchange's flagship product is still Stackoverflow, which is a website for software developers at work who sit at a PC all day. TikTok is an app for consuming quick distractions on the go, and its primary target audience are teenagers who often don't even own a PC. Stack Exchange gets most of its traffic from search engine queries, while TikTok keeps people in the app where it can provide a personalized recommendation stream.
    – Philipp
    Apr 4, 2023 at 8:08

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