The only thing you want less than a TikTok ban is China spying on you and manipulating everything you see

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The prospective TikTok ban – something that terrifies 170 million Americans and an untold number of online entrepreneurs – is rapidly becoming a tangible reality. But until it crystallizes with a signature from US President Joe Biden, nothing is certain, and everyone has questions.

Ever since the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill that would impose a ban unless TikTok's parent company, the Chinese-owned ByteDance, sold the platform, not a day goes by without someone asking me if TikTok will disappear from App stores and US phones.

Some believe a ban is all but inevitable. I'm not so sure. Even those who support the bill – which now moves to the US Senate – insist that a ban was never the goal.

As Senator Mark Warner told NPR this week, "People were saying it's a TikTok ban. No, we want China to divest." In other words, the US Government hopes to force ByteDance to sell, with the option of a ban remaining as a last resort.

Warner points to a previous success, when the US Government pressured Chinese gaming company Beijing Kunlun to divest from the Grindr dating app, with the company selling its stake in 2020. However, a few key differences between the cases make it far less likely that the US will enjoy similar success with TikTok.

Grindr was founded and developed in the US in 2009, and later acquired by a Chinese company. TikTok, which started its life in 2012 as the lip-sync app, was developed in China by ByteDance. The company eventually merged TikTok and, running TikTok in the US and a separate, though essentially identical, app called Douyin in China.

TikTok's enormous popularity in the US is surely a point of pride for Chinese officials, and there's virtually no incentive for it to divest. US lawmakers demanding that China sell TikTok to a US company is equivalent to someone demanding that the Ford Motor Company sell its Mustang business to a company outside the US.

There's an essential unfairness in this US demand – or at least there would be if not for the X-factor of legitimate national security concerns.

What if they're right?

One argument that Warner has made to just about anyone else who will listen is that as a Chinese-based company, ByteDance must do what the Chinese Government – effectively the Chinese Communist Party – asks. There's a legitimate concern that the party could demand that ByteDance tweak its powerful and effective TikTok algorithm to favor one candidate over another (whichever one might be most beneficial to the Chinese Communist Party) in November's Presidential election.

What Senator Warner and other officials rarely discuss is the work TikTok has done over the last two years to firewall US TikTok operations from China. Project Texas, as it was called, moved all the data to US cloud support, added independent US oversight, and even migrated legacy data from Chinese servers. Seven thousand US employees are overseeing TikTok's US operations. So hasn't TikTok done enough to satisfy US lawmakers? Apparently not – and for me there's one big, nagging question.

Who controls the algorithm? While TikTok APIs and data are more or less transparently controlled and managed in the US, it's not at all clear who programs, updates, and determines the push and pull of TikTok's powerful algorithm. One might describe that part of the operation as a black box, and I believe that's what worries everyone from Senator Warner to President Biden.

A forked road

As I see it, though, we now have two immovable forces. The US Government, which is emboldened by almost total bipartisan support, and won't back down on its demands for divestiture, and the Chinese, who have zero interest in giving up control of one of their more successful, digital US businesses.

If there's a ray of hope, it's that the hard deadline you've heard about – a quick passage through the US Senate, Biden signing, and then six months to a sale or ban – is not as immovable as it sounds. In fact, Warner admitted to NPR that an extension is possible.

Even in the most favorable circumstances, concluding a complicated business acquisition or company sale is a highly complex matter. Even if all regulatory approval is waived, a sale still might take 12 months or longer.

For those who use and love Twitter, this is all cold comfort. I've noticed that frequent TikTokers are now posting with one foot edging toward the door, noting that if this all goes south "you can find me on Instagram".

Let's say TikTok does get banned. It will suck for a while. Eventually, though, we'll migrate to Reels, Shorts, or something else, which will be fine, as China does not own it.

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Lance Ulanoff
Editor At Large

A 38-year industry veteran and award-winning journalist, Lance has covered technology since PCs were the size of suitcases and “on line” meant “waiting.” He’s a former Lifewire Editor-in-Chief, Mashable Editor-in-Chief, and, before that, Editor in Chief of and Senior Vice President of Content for Ziff Davis, Inc. He also wrote a popular, weekly tech column for Medium called The Upgrade.

Lance Ulanoff makes frequent appearances on national, international, and local news programs including Live with Kelly and Ryan, the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNBC, CNN, and the BBC.