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TikTok and its parent company challenge a U.S. ban in court

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

TikTok is fighting for its life here in the U.S.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The makers of the hit video app are suing the U.S. government in response to a new law that will ban the app next year, unless the Chinese company that owns it finds a non-Chinese buyer.

FADEL: NPR tech correspondent Bobby Allyn joins us to explain how TikTok's future in the U.S. is riding on this legal challenge. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us about this lawsuit. Why does TikTok say it's suing?

ALLYN: Yeah. TikTok says this law amounts to an unprecedented suppression of free speech. More than 170 million Americans use TikTok, mostly for entertainment, but also to share their political views and to learn about the world, and the company says the government stepping in to shut that down is, quote, "obviously unconstitutional." TikTok argues that if this law is upheld, you know, what would stop Congress from going even farther and passing a law to outlaw an individual newspaper or website? I talked to Anupam Chander about this. He's a technology expert at Georgetown. He says banning a popular foreign-owned Internet service reminds him of China's so-called Great Firewall, which banned Google Search, Facebook, Wikipedia and other sites.

ANUPAM CHANDER: That is exactly what China did to our apps 20 years ago, but we thought it was wrong then, and I don't think we should adopt the same strategy.

ALLYN: Yeah. You know, it's interesting, because lawmakers debating this law use that comparison kind of in both ways. Some warned, you know, taking a page out of an authoritarian playbook is not the right idea, but others said, well, China did it to us, so we're justified in doing the same.

FADEL: An-eye-for-an-eye reasoning there. So how is the Justice Department expected to defend the law in court?

ALLYN: They're expected to focus on TikTok being a national security threat. I'm sure you've it heard by now, what the fears are - right? - that TikTok could be used to spy on us or as a tool to spread pro-China propaganda. The Justice Department will likely argue that while we haven't seen TikTok weaponized against Americans just yet, the potential for that is a scary and compelling enough reason to not take a chance. I will say that history is on TikTok's side. It twice won in federal court when Trump tried to ban TikTok, and TikTok succeeded in defeating a statewide ban in Montana.

FADEL: OK, so while this is being worked out in court, in the meantime, TikTok has a year to be sold, or it will be banned. Is anyone going to step up and buy it?

ALLYN: Yeah, some will try. I actually recently bumped into a former Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, at a conference here in LA, and he's putting together one of the most high-profile attempts to try to buy TikTok. He told me he is still interested with or without TikTok's algorithm, and that's important because TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, says it is not willing to let go of the algorithm. And now, you know, TikTok without its algorithm is kind of like a Lamborghini without its engine - you know, not that great. But if TikTok were to be sold as the entire app, that would create another problem, since 90% of TikTok's users are actually outside of the U.S. Here's Georgetown's Chander on the situation that would create.

CHANDER: You can't really create a TikTok U.S. while having a different company manage TikTok Canada. What you're doing, essentially, is creating a rival between two TikToks.

ALLYN: Yeah. Now, the U.S. government would be OK if TikTok just sold its entire global business, but that would be worth more than $100 billion, pretty expensive, and it would require the blessing of China, and China says there is no way they will agree to that.

FADEL: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you, Bobby.

ALLYN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.