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Devotees of TikTok gather at the Capitol in Washington, as the House passed a bill that would lead to a nationwide ban of the popular video app if its China-based owner doesn't sell, Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Lawmakers contend the app's owner, ByteDance, is beholden to the Chinese government, which could demand access to the data of TikTok's consumers in the U.S. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press

Dave Sommer is vice-president for strategic communications with Enterprise Canada. He previously served as head of digital for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and as head of government and politics with Instagram in Washington.

Anyone who watched the intense grilling of TikTok’s CEO in the U.S. Congress last year could see it coming very clearly: There was no way the app was ever going to survive in the American marketplace.

And sure enough, this week the House of Representatives acted with the kind of overwhelmingly bipartisan consensus you rarely see any more in Washington. In doing so, politicians have set an extremely dangerous precedent when it comes to the regulation of social media and online expression.

By a 362-to-65 vote, the House voted to force TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to either sell its stake in the business or face a total ban in the U.S. The bill now goes to the Senate, where its future is more uncertain, but President Joe Biden has said he’ll sign the bill if it gets to his desk.

Because it’s an election year in the U.S., and the app is based in China – well, cue the spirit of cross-party co-operation. TikTok was the obvious candidate to be the first social-media platform to have meaningful legislation passed against it, after years of seeing tech company CEOs hauled up Capitol Hill for performative slaps on the wrist and “don’t do it again” lectures.

While acknowledging there are very real security concerns at play, not to mention the typical social-media harms that come with TikTok, we should ask ourselves: If governments get emboldened by this and decide they can single out specific companies for potential shutdown, what’s next? Where does it end? Who decides what the next app to threaten national security will be? And who even defines what threatening national security is?

Despite its fury at Big Tech, sometimes justified, Congress has always declined to make moves against Meta, X and others, putting free speech and free enterprise first. Increasingly, that view is held only by the minority.

But it is rightly held. One dissenter to this week’s vote on TikTok, Representative Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said of concerns over China, “the answer to authoritarianism is not more authoritarianism.”

Mr. McClintock now swims against a crushing tide. This new, deep vulnerability of platforms to shifting political winds could not have been more perfectly illustrated by former president and current GOP candidate Donald Trump, who supported a TikTok ban while in office but this week flip-flopped, saying Meta was the actual “enemy of the people,” a chilling and dictator-adjacent phrase he uses so often it’s become normalized.

Is it hard to imagine a critical mass of Congress deciding they agree with him at some point in the next four years? What about traditional news media operations publishing items deemed dangerous to national security?

As many have pointed out, TikTok has already been banned from government phones in many jurisdictions, including here in Canada, for some time. On the plus side, that’s meant far fewer awkward attempts by politicos to connect with young people by mimicking viral videos, taking showers while fully clothed and the like. The downside is that we’re now seeing the heavy hand of regulation from people who have only the faintest working knowledge of day-to-day social media and don’t use the apps themselves.

To be clear, the TikTok bill has an uphill battle in the fiercely divided U.S. Senate. The campaign against the app has led to strange political allegiances, and it’s not clear what its path forward will be. But events certainly do not bode well.

If the bill becomes law, while there would surely be bidders, the hot political target on TikTok’s back offers a significant disincentive. If ByteDance sells, the odds of a credible U.S. corporation offering a fair price and operating the platform successfully are probably zero.

Whatever the future holds, TikTok might not exist in the same form – a fate that’s now increasingly likely for all companies thanks to this vote.

Admittedly, if TikTok shuts down, creators will eventually find another place to go, such as Reels or YouTube, at least until the next battle.

But we’re in uncharted territory here. Given the volatility in the relationship between tech companies, the U.S. government and the presumptive Republican candidate for the Oval Office, the next weeks and months will be crucial to determining how far this battle will go – and how much it will affect what we do, view and say online.

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