TikTok's Lawsuit Against the US: Is Buying the Social Network Now Impossible?

The lawsuit filed on Tuesday potentially opens up a long-running legal battle over TikTok's future in the US. TikTok argues that it should be protected under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression

by Sededin Dedovic
TikTok's Lawsuit Against the US: Is Buying the Social Network Now Impossible?
© Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

TikTok has sued the United States over a law that could potentially ban the platform. To the American government, TikTok is more than just entertainment—it's a platform for news and information that can also be used for propaganda.

For decades, the U.S. has had restrictions on foreign ownership of traditional media such as radio or cable stations for policy makers. TikTok's restrictions are a logical consequence in the 21st century. The social platform TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance have sued the U.S.

government over a law that would ban the popular short-video platform if it is not sold to another company. The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, could open up a lengthy legal battle over TikTok's future in the U.S. TikTok argues in the lawsuit that it should be protected under the First Amendment of the U.S.

Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. They seek a judgment that the law violates the Constitution. The popular social network says that the law, signed by U.S. President Joe Biden as part of a larger $95 billion foreign aid package, is so "patently unconstitutional" that even its sponsors are trying to portray it not as a ban, but as "ownership regulation" over TikTok.

"The U.S. Congress has taken an unprecedented step of explicitly singling out TikTok and banning it as a live online forum for speech and expression used by 170 million Americans to create, share, and view videos over the Internet," ByteDance wrote in the lawsuit.

"For the first time in history, Congress has enacted a law subjecting a single, named platform through which speech is made, to a permanent nationwide ban, prohibiting every American from participating in a unique online community with over a billion people worldwide," it continues in the lawsuit.

The law requires ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, to sell the platform within nine months, with a possible extension of three months.

Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, departs from the Russell Senate Office Building after meeting with Sen.

John Fetterman (D-PA) on Ma© Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

ByteDance has stated that it has no plans to sell TikTok. But even if it wanted to sell, the company would need approval from Beijing, which has previously opposed the forced sale of the platform and indicated it would continue to do so.

The TikTok saga unfolds at a time when U.S.-China relations have shifted into intense strategic rivalry, particularly in areas such as advanced technology and data security, which each country sees as essential for its economic prowess and national security.

U.S. lawmakers from both parties, as well as government officials and law enforcement, have expressed concerns that Chinese authorities could compel ByteDance to hand over data of U.S. users, or influence public opinion by manipulating the algorithm that sends videos to user accounts.

Opponents of the law argue that Chinese authorities or other malicious actors could easily obtain information about Americans through other means and point out that the U.S. government has not provided evidence that TikTok shares data of American users with Chinese authorities or manipulates algorithms in favor of China.

They also argue that attempts to ban TikTok could violate freedom of speech rights in the U.S. Jamal Jaafar, an expert from Columbia University, assesses that TikTok's challenge could succeed. "The First Amendment means that the government cannot restrict Americans' access to ideas, information, or media from abroad without a very good reason, and such a reason does not exist here," he said in a statement.

These fears are reflected in U.S. law, which represents the culmination of long-standing bipartisan fears in Washington that Chinese Communist leaders could compel ByteDance to hand over U.S. user data or influence Americans by suppressing or promoting certain content.

TikTok has long claimed that it does not share data with the Chinese government. Donald Trump attempted by executive order to force ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, to sell its U.S. operations to an American owner as early as 2020.

Oracle seemed interested, but negotiations failed, as did attempts to keep the app out of app stores. Since then, TikTok says it has made significant efforts to delete data about U.S. users from its servers and move all that information to servers in the U.S., a move called Project Texas.

This theoretically keeps the data out of reach of Chinese oversight. Many experts, such as Milton Miller, a cybersecurity expert at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, doubt that there is any real security threat after reviewing all the evidence.

However, many American politicians and government intelligence and security agencies are not satisfied and want to move to the next step.