(Pocket-lint) - This whole "TikTok is being banned in the US" thing has become really complicated, real quick.
It all kicked off when President Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok earlier this year. He later made that threat official with an order. Soon after, Microsoft said it wanted to acquire TikTok's US operations, but then Twitter and Oracle threw their hat into the ring, too. Meanwhile, TikTok decided to file suit against the Trump administration.
However, the US levied another order on 18 September (Friday), and it effectively says TikTok will be banned from US app stores from 20 September (Sunday).
There's was some other news related to this saga, as well, like Instagram's co-founder possibly becoming TikTok's CEO.
Now it appears that TikTok will be able to continue operating in the US after a deal was sealed with Oracle and Walmart, although it's not quite clear what form the arrangement will take.
So, how did we get here? Why is this all happening? Is TikTok really a national security concern? You probably have a lot of these sorts of questions - as do we - but we'll try our best to answer most of them in this easy-to-read explainer (and timeline) of Trump's TikTok ban in the US. Buckle up.
TikTok ban timeline: A timeline of events
Before we address questions about TikTok being banned in the US, lets breakdown the order events thus far.
This story actually goes back to October 2019, when the so-called trade war between China and the US escalated to a point that US officials began to warn about the use of TikTok. But the Trump administration wasn't the only one beginning to cast a watchful eye on TikTok. US Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton also both called for an investigation of TikTok, noting that “with over 110 million downloads in the US alone, TikTok is a potential counter-intelligence threat we cannot ignore".
By December 2019, the US accused TikTok of transferring user data to servers in China. TikTok denied those claims and said the Chinese government has no access to its users’ data, which is stored in the US. “There is zero truth to the accusations the Chinese state has access to TikTok users’ data," it said.
Scrutiny increased heading in 2020. By March, more people, suddenly in lockdown, had started using the app for entertainment and as a creative outlet. It reached a peak of two billion downloads, globally. Reports began emerging about TikTok's China-based parent company, ByteDance, hoping to beef up its presence worldwide. But, simultaneously, China's relationship with India was cratering; by summer, India had decided to ban 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the media in July 2020 that the US government was considering banning TikTok, too. "We are certainly looking at it. We have worked on this very issue for a long time," Pompeo told Fox News. "With respect to Chinese apps on people's cell phones, I can assure you the US will get this one right too." He added that US citizens should be cautious in using TikTok in case their private information ends up "in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party".
By the end of July 2020, Trump was telling reporters during an Air Force One flight en route to Washington DC that he would ban the app. “As far as TikTok is concerned we’re banning them from the US,” Trump said. "I have that authority. I can do it with an executive order or that."
Trump finally signed an executive order forcing ByteDance to sell TikTok's US operations. He signed another order days later, however, that relaxed the timescale set in the previous order. Originally, the US gave ByteDance 45 days to sell its US TikTok operations, with a completion date of 15 September 2020, or the company would face several restrictive actions. In the second order, though, the US extended that to 90 days. A similar order was also made against the Chinese chat app WeChat.
(To be clear, the initial part of the ban also prohibited companies in the US from having any dealings with TikTok. But the subsquent order enabled US suitors to talk to ByteDance about potential acquisitions of its US business, as long as all negotiations are finished and agreed by 12 November 2020.)
Throughout August, Trump made several comments about the forced sale of TikTok, including who should buy it. According to Bloomberg, the President said at one point, "I don’t mind whether it’s Microsoft or someone else [that buys TikTok] - a big company, a secure company, a very American company buys it."
Indeed, Microsoft was planning to buy the US arm of TikTok. CEO Satya Nadella even held constructive talks with Trump - in which a review of the app's security was promised. In blog post, the company explained that it "fully appreciates the importance of addressing the President’s concerns". Microsoft also confirmed it was committed to acquiring TikTok, "subject to a complete security review and providing proper economic benefits to the US."
At the same time, TikTok filed suit against the Trump administration, alleging that its order banning transactions with ByteDance infringes due process protections, goes beyond the purview of sanctions rules, and provides no evidence that TikTok is a national security threat.
Despite all that drama, Microsoft wasn't the only suitor interested in buying TikTok. According to The Wall Street Journal, Twitter held “preliminary talks” about purchasing TikTok. The US computer tech corporation Oracle, which is more a brand in the world of IT than consumer apps, also entered the fray. The Financial Times reported that Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison was working with a group of US investors to purchase all TikTok operations in the US.
By the end of August 2020, Walmart had partnered with Microsoft on some sort of TikTok deal, though the details were incredibly unclear. The retailer made it seem like their partnership would allow it to grow its ad business.
In early September 2020, Microsoft announced it would not acquire parts of TikTok’s operations after its bid was rejected by ByteDance. After weeks of talks and back and forths with the Trump administration, Microsoft had exited the race. So, with Microsoft out of the way, Oracle announced it would try to take over stewardship of TikTok’s US operations. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed the deal and said it would be presented to President Trump with his recommendation later.
Meanwhile, TikTok's CEO, Kevin Mayer, had resigned after just three months on the job, and The New York Times reported that TikTok was approaching Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom about becoming the app's next CEO.
Overall, things seemed to be looking up for TikTok for a bit, when suddenly, on 18 September 2020, the Department of Commerce announced app stores had to remove TikTok and Tencent-owned WeChat by Sunday 20 September 2020 under a new executive order by Trump.
However, over that weekend a deal seemed to be agreed with Oracle and Walmart to take minority stakes in TikTok Global - which will still be 80 percent owned by ByteDance and will be listed on a US stock exchange within the next year. Coincidentally, US venture capital companies own a significant stake (around 40 percent) in ByteDance.
Oracle will provide the cloud infrastructure that will secure American users' data within US borders.
As a result, it seems that TikTok has received a reprieve from the out-and-out ban.
On 21 September a new twist was reported where President Trump said that the US needed to have "total control" over TikTok Global which contradicts earlier statements. He said: "If we find that they don't have total control, then we are not going to approve the deal."
Is TikTok a national security concern?
It's unclear. The Trump administration has accused TikTok of transferring user data to servers in China and has banned the app. It has not provided any evidence to support its claims. ByteDance is therefore suing Trump’s administration, noting that the US has not proven TikTok is a national security threat. "We strongly disagree with the Administration's position that TikTok is a national security threat", it said, the Trump's order "is not rooted in bona fide national security concerns".
TikTok also noted independent national security experts have "expressed doubt as to whether its stated national security objective is genuine".
Is Trump's TikTok ban legal?
That's for the courts to decide. But ByteDance's position on the entire matter is hinted in a recent blog post. It said the Trump administration's order has the potential to strip rights "without any evidence to justify such an extreme action, and without any due process. The company issued another strongly worded statement in response to the latest order demanding Apple and Google remove TikTok from app stores by 20 September 2020, calling it "unjust" and "enacted without due process".
ByteDance's lawsuit also argues Trump has been disregarding TikTok’s cooperation with the Committee on Foreign Investment and that personal communications - which it claims should include mobile apps - are usually exempt from sanctions and protected by the First Amendment.
When is the US banning TikTok?
The US Commerce Department issued an order to block people in the US from downloading TikTok. The order was published by the Department of Commerce on 18 September 2020. “Any transaction by any person, or with respect to any property, subject to the jurisdiction of the US, with ByteDance Ltd,” the order reads, “shall be prohibited to the extent permitted under applicable law.” The order is set to take effect on 20 September 2020.
The ban will bar Apple and Google from offering the apps in their app stores for US users. TikTok will still be available to users outside of the US.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Reuters: “We have taken significant action to combat China’s malicious collection of American citizens’ personal data, while promoting our national values, democratic rules-based norms, and aggressive enforcement of US laws and regulations.”
So what is TikTok and how does it work?
TikTok is a social app used to create and share videos. Many videos tend to be music-focused, with creators leveraging the app's vast catalogue of sound effects, music snippets, and filters to record short clips of them dancing and lip-syncing. But there's an untold number of videos to discover, with varying topics. There are DIY and craft videos, comedic sketches, you name it. If TikTok sounds familiar, it's because there are similar apps that came before it, like Vine and Dubsmash.
TikTok also had a predecessor, called Musical.ly, that Chinese entrepreneurs Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang launched in 2014. ByteDance acquired Musical.ly in 2017, and then a year later, it folded the service's core functionality and userbase into its own TikTok app. Existing Musical.ly users were migrated over to TikTok accounts. By 2018, TikTok had surpassed Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat in monthly installs in the US Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Want to know more about TikTok?
Check out our other guides:
- What is TikTok and how does it work? Everything you need to know
- Best TikTok tips and tricks: Your complete guide to Musical.ly's successor
- Best TikTok alternatives 2020: Five video-sharing apps to try