How Did TikTok Become a Target for U.S. Lawmakers?
The full timeline of ByteDance, TikTok, and the possibility of a national ban on both
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images
From practically the day it launched to U.S. users, TikTok has been a target for U.S. lawmakers over perceived security threats. TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is China-based, and lawmakers stateside have expressed concerns that TikTok’s owner might be able to tap into U.S. user data that could then be manipulated by the Chinese government.
Then-President Trump introduced a potential ban on TikTok from U.S. app stores back in 2020, but the ban was struck down by two judges. Today, the potential for a TikTok ban has reentered the creator conversation: Legislation has moved forward giving President Biden the power to ban the app entirely.
So how did we get here? Over several years, two presidential administrations, and lots of headlines. Below is a timeline of the movement to ban TikTok—so you can understand the forces that got the words “TikTok ban” into our everyday creator discourse.
March 2012: Zhang Yiming founds ByteDance, an entertainment mobile app company based out of China (Digiday).
2016: ByteDance launches Douyin, a video-sharing app (which looks almost identical to the TikTok we know today), which grows to 100 million users in China and Thailand in just one year (BBC).
2017-2018: In order to expand its audience globally, ByteDance buys Musical.ly, rebrands it as TikTok, and launches TikTok worldwide (BBC). After ByteDance combined Musical.ly into TikTok in August 2018, it gained about 30 million new users within three months (HBR).
May 2019: India bans TikTok for two weeks, costing the app 15 million users (CNN).
October 9, 2019: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio calls for the U.S. government to probe TikTok over security concerns from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which oversees foreign acquisitions for national security concerns (WaPo).
October 24, 2019: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton ask for a federal review of TikTok due to national security concerns (Washington Post). At the time in 2019, TikTok had 100 million U.S. users (CNN).
July 2020: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirms that the Trump Administration is considering a TikTok ban (The Verge).
August 5, 2020: President Trump signs executive order that would ban TikTok in the U.S. (NPR).
September 18, 2020: President Trump says he plans to ban TikTok and WeChat (China’s version of WhatsApp) from U.S. app stores (NYT).
September 23, 2020: Reuters reports that after Secretary of State Pompeo announced that Trump was considering a ban, the app “saw a drop of over 500,000 daily active users” (Reuters).
September 27, 2020: A judge strikes down Trump's move to ban the app from all app stores (Reuters).
2021: TikTok becomes the world’s most-visited website (ABC News).
February 24, 2021: TikTok releases its fourth annual global Transparency Report (TikTok).
June 9, 2021: President Biden drops Trump’s TikTok and WeChat ban (NPR).
September 27, 2021: TikTok hits 1 billion monthly active users (Forbes).
June 29, 2022: 14 Republican senators and a Republican commissioner from the FCC reportedly issue letters to TikTok demanding answers and identifying the app as a national security threat (NBC News).
July 2022: TikTok and Oracle, TikTok’s U.S. “technology partner,” roll out Project Texas, a “$1.5-billion corporate restructuring plan aimed at instilling American confidence in TikTok’s operations and security” (Texas Monthly). But according to Buzzfeed News, the Project Texas team reports to China (BuzzFeed News).
October 20, 2022: Forbes is the first to report that TikTok plans to use the app’s location services to monitor specific Americans (Forbes).
December 8, 2022: TikTok creates U.S.-based Trust and Safety team in response to government concerns (TikTok blog).
December 14, 2022: Congress passes the No TikTok on Government Devices Act, which bars federal agencies from having TikTok in their information technology (congress.gov).
December 22, 2022: ByteDance conducts an internal investigation into TikTok and confirms that it used TikTok to track journalists using their IP addresses, corroborating Forbes’ report from October (Forbes).
December 28, 2022: The University of Oklahoma and Auburn University ban TikTok from their campus Wi-Fi (NBC).
January 15, 2023: A total of 27 states have banned TikTok from government devices (Insider).
February 2, 2023: Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett calls TikTok an “unacceptable threat” to U.S. national security and demands Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai remove TikTok from their app stores immediately (senate.gov).
February 23, 2023: The European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) bans TikTok on all government devices (CNN).
February 27, 2023: The White House gives government officials at all federal agencies 30 days to remove TikTok from their devices (AP).
March 7, 2023: Congress introduces the bipartisan Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act, which “aims to give the U.S. government new powers, up to and including a ban, against foreign-linked producers of electronics or software that the Commerce Department deems to be a national security risk” (CNN).
March 15, 2023: The Biden administration demands that ByteDance sell TikTok, or risk a nationwide TikTok ban (NPR).
March 16, 2023: The U.K. bans TikTok on government devices (CNBC).
March 23, 2023: TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify before the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee (NPR).
Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg