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Will Joe Biden ban TikTok?

The US House is considering a bill that would give the federal government’s executive branch the power to ban TikTok, a popular video-sharing app, from phones across the country.

But will that ban ever come to pass? It remains unlikely, as the issue is mired in both domestic and international politics and comes at a time when US-China relations are at their most tenuous point in recent memory. China’s Communist Party continues to express frequent and growing anger over US delegations to the island of Taiwan, which considers itself its own independent nation while Beijing (and many countries, at least officially) consider it to be part of China.

This week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted along party lines to advance TikTok legislation to the full House; if signed into law, it would give the president the power to ban TikTok’s parent company ByteDance from processing transactions in the US, effectively prohibiting downloads of the app going forward.

The committee’s party-line vote, with all Democrats voting against, is a sign that the bill is doomed in the US Senate, which remains firmly in Democratic hands. The president’s party believes the legislation goes too far, warning that its wide-reaching requirements would force the US government to sanction other companies that do business with ByteDance, including semiconductor chip manufacturers.

National security and cybersecurity hawks have long accused ByteDance of gathering personal information on Americans with the intention, or at least possibility, of providing that information en masse to the Chinese Communist Party. Republicans in particular have used grandiose language to describe the risk posed by the app, with Foreign Affairs panel chairman Michael McCaul referring to the popular platform for goofy dances and other memes as a “spy balloon” in the pocket of millions of Americans.

Rep Gregory Meeks, the committee’s ranking Democrat, told Reuters that he understands the national security concerns posed by TikTok while calling the Republican bill “dangerously” far-reaching in its effects.

Joe Biden himself seemed unsure if his administration would make an effort to ban the app from Americans’ phones when asked in early February about the issue. The US government has, however, ordered the app deleted from all federal devices.

"I'm not sure. I know I don't have it on my phone," the president told reporters on 6 February.

His press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said during Wednesday’s press briefing that she agreed with Republicans about the alleged national security risks posed by the app. It’s not likely, however, that the White House will go against congressional Democrats on the issue.

“We have concerns about the app and that’s why we have called on Congress to act — including how China is trying to collect the privacy of Americans,” she said, while not indicating any support for this bill in particular.

At Monday’s press conference, she added: "We'll continue to look for other actions to deal with this.”

Banning TikTok from US phones under a Democratic president is a long-running campaign for Republicans; their party announced plans to do so via executive order under the Trump presidency, only for Mr Biden to overturn that order when he took office.

The ban never actually went into effect, as TikTok sued the Trump administration over the order and won a preliminary injunction halting the move.

China’s goverment has predictably criticised the effort of US lawmakers to ban the app from Americans’ devices, and has long denied that it seeks the personal information of Americans or uses “backdoors” into technology built by Chinese companies to do so. Beijing calls US criticism of the company an effort to fight foreign competition against American companies.

“How unsure of itself can the world’s top superpower be to fear a young people’s favorite app like that? The US has been over-stretching the concept of national security and abusing state power to suppress foreign companies,” a Foriegn Affairs ministry spokesperson said on Tuesday. “We firmly oppose those wrong actions.”

“The US government should respect the principles of market economy and fair competition, stop suppressing the companies and provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies in the US,” she continued.