“2023: The Year Congress Let TikTok Dance Past the Ban”

At the start of 2023, it seemed almost inevitable that the US would ban TikTok. In late 2022, dozens of individual states barred the short-form video app from government devices over security concerns, and the US House followed suit. Four universities also blocked TikTok from their campus wifi. The movement to prohibit TikTok gained even more momentum in the spring, when CEO Shou Zi Chew was called before Congress for questioning.

By April, with support from the White House, it seemed a federal ban was imminent. However, the US Senate commerce committee later confirmed that it would not be taking up TikTok-related legislation before the end of the year, and the deluge of legislative actions against the app petered out.

The political war over TikTok revolved around allegations that its China-based parent company, ByteDance, could collect sensitive user data and censor content that goes against the demands of the Chinese Communist party. TikTok denied these claims and emphasized its billion-dollar efforts to store user information on servers outside its home country.

With the influence of social media giants being heavily scrutinized for years, and tensions with China high, attacks on TikTok became more politically viable for lawmakers. This resulted in a flurry of legislative efforts, including a bill sponsored by more than two dozen senators that would give the administration new powers to ban the app if it posed a national security threat. However, none of these laws ever made it to a vote, and many stalled entirely as lawmakers turned their attention to the boom in artificial intelligence.

The momentum for a nationwide prohibition seemed to gain traction again when Montana passed a total statewide ban on TikTok in May, to start on 1 January 2024. However, a US judge blocked the legislation from going into effect last week, which TikTok applauded. The judge argued that the law “oversteps state power and infringes on the constitutional rights of users”. This decision indicated that broader bans are unlikely to be successful, and sent a clear message to lawmakers that banning an app is a violation of the first amendment.

This was echoed by civil liberties attorney David Greene, who said that the idea of a ban was being pushed more to make political points than as a serious effort to legislate. With the final word from the Senate, 2023 became the year Congress forgot to ban TikTok.

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