TikTok is suing the US government over a law that seeks to force the app’s Chinese owner ByteDance to sell it within nine months or ban its use in America.

The popular video-sharing platform is trying to block the recently passed bill, arguing it violates the US constitution, including the first amendment which protects free speech.

The bill, officially known as the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, was signed by President Joe Biden on 24 April and gives TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance until 19 January next year to sell the app to another company or face a ban.

The measure was passed overwhelmingly in Congress last month amid worries among US politicians that China could access data on American people or spy on them with the app.

TikTok denies it has or ever would share US user data, accusing American politicians of pushing “speculative” concerns.

More than one billion people use TikTok worldwide, including 170 million in the US, which is the country with the platform’s biggest audience.

The lawsuit, which was filed by TikTok and ByteDance in Washington on Tuesday at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, called the act an “unprecedented violation” of the first amendment.

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It said: “For the first time in history, Congress has enacted a law that subjects a single, named speech platform to a permanent, nationwide ban, and bars every American from participating in a unique online community with more than one billion people worldwide.”

It also said: “There is no question: the act (law) will force a shutdown of TikTok by 19 January 2025, silencing the 170 million Americans who use the platform to communicate in ways that cannot be replicated elsewhere.”

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Will the US ban TikTok?

ByteDance has said it “doesn’t have any plan to sell TikTok”. But even if it wanted to, the company would have to get the nod from Beijing, which previously opposed a forced sale of the platform and has signalled its opposition this time around.

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TikTok argues that invoking national security concerns is not a sufficient reason for restricting free speech, and the burden is on the federal US government to prove that this restriction is warranted. It has not met that burden, the lawsuit stated.

Why is TikTok facing a US ban?

Arthi Nachiappan

Technology correspondent

Attracting around 170 million US users in seven years, TikTok has taken America by storm. But there have long been concerns in Washington about the China-based ownership of the social media platform.

Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance originally launched the Chinese version of the app called Douyin, meaning “shaking sound”, in 2016. They followed up with an international version – TikTok – in November 2017.

Since then, the platform has had a meteoric rise. Fuelled by its popularity among Gen-Z, it has become an influential social media platform. But it has become a target for both sides of the political spectrum in Washington, as well as in other Western countries, due to fears over the use of user data.

Politicians and officials in the US have expressed concerns that Chinese authorities could force ByteDance to hand over US user data. TikTok has said it has never done that and would not do so if asked. There are also fears over influence on Americans by suppressing or promoting certain content on TikTok.

The use of TikTok by the federal government’s nearly four million employees on devices owned by its agencies is already banned in the US, with limited exceptions for law enforcement, national security and security research purposes. A similar ban is also in place for civil servants in the UK.

India was the first country to ban TikTok in 2020 following a violent clash on the India-China border that left at least 20 Indian soldiers dead. Interestingly, TikTok is also not available in app stores in China – where the internet is tightly controlled by the state – and Douyin is used instead.

In March, TikTok’s chief executive appealed to US users directly to stop the bill forcing the app’s sale and accused lawmakers in the US of attempting to shut down the platform. In a video posted on the platform, Shou Zi Chew told users the bill “will lead to a ban of TikTok in the United States”, adding: “Even the bill’s sponsors admit that’s their goal.”

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The lawsuit claimed that if the act remains in place, it would allow the federal government to force the publishers of other platforms, including news sites, to sell or be shut down, citing national security grounds.

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Opponents of the law argue that Chinese authorities could easily get information on Americans in other ways, including through commercial data brokers which rent or sell personal information.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the suit Tuesday.