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Biden and Trump agree on at least one thing: Something has to be done about TikTok. But it's not that easy.

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Banning TikTok has become a bipartisan issue, but it's not easy.Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images; Drew Angerer/Getty Images; Shayanne Gal/Business Insider
  • As the Biden administration pushes for a TikTok sale or ban, it's clear the idea has bipartisan support.

  • Lawmakers are pushing for a sale, so they avoid the backlash that comes with banning it.

  • Experts say an ideal outcome would be a better framework for Chinese owned apps operating in the US.

Former US President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden agree on at least one thing: Something has to be done about TikTok.

TikTok's future in the US is once again under question. The Biden administration is demanding that TikTok divest its American business from Bytedance, the Chinese company which owns it, in order to address what it sees as a  potential risk to national security.

We've been here before, when the Trump administration pushed TikTok to sell its US operations in much the same way. At that time, Oracle and Walmart put together a successful bid for TikTok's US business, but the deal fell apart as Trump left office.

While the Biden administration's approach to TikTok has been slightly different, it's clear that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle support a TikTok ban. And political power is aligning to make something happen, and soon.

There is a bill going through Congress right now, introduced by Democratic Senator Mark Warner, that would allow the federal government to regulate and ban foreign-produced technology, including TikTok. It's called the RESTRICT Act, and would essentially give the secretary of commerce power to regulate tech produced by six countries that have adversarial relationships with the US: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela.

However, the Biden administration is hesitant to back a ban without first trying other options for the same overarching political reasons that Trump's TikTok ban ultimately never happened: because the White House  doesn't want to alienate younger voters, many of whom are TikTok users, experts said.

"TikTok is an incredibly popular application among US users, many of which skew younger," said Mark Shmulik, an analyst with Bernstein, on Biden's hesitation to do an outright ban "And you can hypothesize that they may skew and vote Democrat a little bit more."

By comparison, it's a very different situation as when the Trump administration banned Chinese tech giant like Huawei — that company didn't enjoy the widespread consumer popularity of TikTok, Shmulik said, which meant politicians didn't have the same backlash to worry about.

Ultimately, experts say they hope this scenario results in guidelines for how other Chinese social media companies can operate in the US.

TikTok Bans are already in place in governments and schools, but a more holistic ban is harder

Government bans on TikTok have been put in place over the last few months. A bill to ban TikTok on federal devices passed in December with bipartisan support in Congress, and was then signed by President Biden. More than two dozen states, including Wisconsin and North Carolina, have banned it on state government owned devices, in turn.

Other countries, like the UK, are now also implementing similar bans.

Schools and universities are also considering banning it, which has not been well received by students, according to a report from Inside Higher Ed.

That's likely to happen on a wider scale if the Biden Administration pushed for an immediate ban, experts said. It's likely why they are asking for TikTok to sell its US business, Shmulik said.

China is likely to oppose the path to any kind of sale of TikTok's US assets before bidding even starts. In particular, China would likely not allow a sale to include its content-recommendation algorithm to a US entity, which is seen as the company's secret sauce.

China views the transfer of TikTok's algorithm into another country's hands as a national security concern, said David Glancy, a professor at the Institute of World Politics. The US government knows that very well, Glancy suggests, but, in going this route the Americans can say they at least tried to work out a better solution than a ban.

"The president can kind of come out and say, look, we gave them a chance to run as an independent kind of company, they refused it, so China wants to be involved in it. We can't have that for security reasons and therefore here comes a ban," Shmulik said.

Experts say the best outcome is a framework for how Chinese tech and media companies can operate in the US

Some experts say the government is genuine about trying to find another solution besides a ban — in part because the relationship between the US and China is so entwined that banning TikTok isn't a long-term solution.

"In some ways TikTok is the face of US/China tech competition now," said Lindsay Gorman, a senior fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at GMF. "There's a real question of whether a TikTok ban or sale is gonna be a one-off, or are we gonna really put in place some better systems."

There are many other companies looking at what TikTok has achieved in garnering a global user base, and following the same playbook. For example, Temu and Shein are extremely popular Chinese companies with apps available in the US. Like TikTok, both platforms collect user data from US customers as part of their day-to-day operations, Insider previously reported.

Gorman is closely watching Warner's RESTRICT Act, which she supports on the basis that it doesn't single out TikTok. That approach may be the more holistic approach that threads the needle on policy, appeasing the national security community. Either way, experts like Gorman and Glancy said, something has to be done given the rise of China-owned apps in America.

"Across the board there's a re-look at China and China technology sort of in a bigger way," Glancy said. "From a US national security view, I think it's overdue."

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