For sale: One of the most successful social networking platforms worldwide with one billion users from 140 countries.

To someone with ambition and money, this sounds like a very good opportunity. But Chinese-owned TikTok isn’t just a short-form video app. Rather, it is a phenomenon platform that has changed social media and the way people communicate.

Further complicating matters is the fact that some are concerned that the platform may pose a risk to US national security – and the general sentiment towards China. Hence Congress is moving quickly to put more pressure on the company.

The US Congress is applying pressure

For the US government, TikTok is more than a form of entertainment – ​​it is also an information platform that can be exploited for propaganda purposes. For decades there have been restrictions in the US on the purchase of traditional media (such as radio or television stations) by foreign individuals. And so it seems logical to impose corresponding restrictions on TikTok.

On March 13, the US House of Representatives voted to mandate the sale of the app within six months – or it will be banned from Apple and Google’s online stores in the country. It now awaits Senate approval, while President Biden has said he intends to sign the bill into law.

TikTok is probably waiting for someone from a machine god to rescue its US operation. However, the list of potential buyers is short. And what will happen to the 170 million US users if TikTok can’t be sold?

Is it really a security issue?

This is not the first time that the sale of TikTok has been discussed. In 2020, President Trump tried by executive order to force ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, to sell its subsidiary to an American. Although the scenario of selling the company to Oracle seemed likely, in the end the venture failed, as did the attempts to block the application from the app stores.

Since then, TikTok maintains that it has done everything in its power to delete the data of American users from ByteDance’s servers and transfer it to servers in the US. In theory, Chinese surveillance services cannot thus access this data.

After looking at all the evidence, many experts, such as Milton Miller, a cybersecurity expert at the Atlanta Institute of Technology, doubt whether a security risk really exists. Yet many American politicians and government intelligence and security officials are unconvinced – and want to go a step further.

Who would want to buy TikTok?

Therefore, buying all or just the American part of TikTok is not a simple matter, but rather a entanglement in a geopolitical minefield. Will ByteDance still be the majority shareholder and make the decisions behind the scenes? Who will manage and update the app’s powerful algorithm?


Miller, who uses TikTok several times a week, estimates that selling the app is “theoretically possible, but highly complicated and therefore probably unlikely.” He adds that “the Chinese government may not allow it, and it is unclear where it benefits or what exactly is involved in selling a ‘part’ of a globally connected social networking service”.

However, ByteDance seems ready for a legal battle. The Chinese government, for its part, seems restrained. But it could block the sale by banning the export of the technology on which the app is based. And without its algorithm, TikTok would be much less attractive. Also, it’s hard to set limits and block access to something as “fluid” as an app.

Besides these, such a short schedule is also a problem. Miller has spoken to various TikTok people recently who say that such a sale as a technical and operational issue cannot materialize so immediately. They will have six months at their disposal, “while the sale of Grindr by another Chinese company took a year,” explains the expert.

Many problems

If the application is eventually banned in the US, then it is certain that lawsuits will be filed regarding whether it violates the 1st amendment of the US Constitution. “The freedom of expression of American users, not foreigners or the Chinese government, will be suppressed,” says Miller.

And there is also the price. Some analysts believe that despite all the difficulties, TikTok could be sold for more than 50 billion dollars (45.8 billion euros). Companies that can spend such an amount are few, such as Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft or Netflix. If one of them bought the platform, then it would be targeted because it would own a lot of very important technology. Alternatively, all or part of TikTok could be spun off into an independent public company – or transferred to US private equity giants.

After the vote in the House of Representatives, former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was working to create a group of investors to buy the company – but did not provide further details. The irony of course is that Mnuchin was one of the people pushing to sell the app four years ago while he was a member of Donald Trump’s Cabinet.


The issue is not just implementation

But then again the issue is not ultimately entrepreneurship or even national security according to Milton Miller. “This is a pawn in the broader competition for power between the US and China, which is also being exploited for symbolic reasons.”

“It is patently inaccurate to equate a commercial social networking app with espionage, just as calling the Singaporean CEO of TikTok an agent of the Chinese Communist Party is patently inaccurate,” but resonates with both Republicans and Democrats “who they see the U.S. as competing with China to maintain its hegemony,” Miller adds.

Enforcing a sale, however, would also set a dangerous precedent that could be used by other governments against US social media companies.

Miller expects such digital protectionism to lead to “less competition and innovation in the social media market.” And there will always be the next national security threat – perhaps Chinese-made electric cars or battery systems? The retaliation is never going to stop.

So, anyone interested?

Edited by: Giorgos Passas