How Donald Trump misplaced the conflict on TikTok

"Please follow us on Instagram before TikTok is gone," asked Self Defense Online, a TikTok mixed martial arts user, on August 1st. "Follow me on IG so we don't lose touch if TikTok is deleted and we can keep doing that." Have fun together! "Dance teacher Julie Haneline pleaded the same day.

Those videos were ubiquitous for a brief moment this summer, and for good reason. As far as many TikTok developers knew, the app they'd grown to love, the one that gave them a platform and spent their days and nights in quarantine, was about to disappear.

But this doomsday scenario did not occur. As president, Donald Trump's reasons for targeting TikTok – national security, privacy, or personal vengeance concerns – never emerged as a coherent strategy. In fact, none of the two executive orders and various measures taken by the administration to ban, reorganize, or otherwise disrupt TikTok were put into practice. With his presidency ending on Wednesday, TikTok won a kind of unlikely fight, partly because the law was on his side, but also because Trump appeared to have lost interest by the end of his term in office.

The result is optimal for TikTok, parent company ByteDance, and the ecosystem of users, developers, and marketers who rely on the app. Unless Joe Biden follows up on the case, which experts say Adweek says is extremely unlikely, TikTok is here to stay.

In fact, it is thriving. TikTok has continued to grow since Trump's regulatory blitz, doubling its active user base in 2020. In November, it had 48 million active adult US users, according to Comscore. That number rose from 45 million in August when the Executive Orders were signed to 22 million users last January.

The next shiny object

"What we are seeing here is a lack of prioritization and focus on behalf of the Trump administration," said Alec Stapp, head of technology policy at the liberal Progressive Policy Institute. "If Trump didn't call the Georgian Foreign Secretary his time to overthrow the elections, maybe he could actually put his administration and the people who work for him to actually focus on this issue."

Stapp said the whole ordeal with TikTok probably just ended when Trump "moved on to the next shiny object" and recently he was "obsessed, really monomaniac" by Section 230, a major liability law for internet companies.

Other experts agreed that while most of his recent political will has been to repeal Section 230 through Defense Approval Act – an effort that ultimately failed – Trump made the Foreign Investment Committee (CFIUS) much easier to get the TikTok deal done at that time.

The government brokered a deal with Oracle and Walmart, two Trump-friendly American companies that would buy a combined fifth of a new company called TikTok Global, and Trump gave the deal his informal "blessing" in September.

While the Oracle-Walmart deal wouldn't have done much to resolve privacy issues, ByteDance agreed. Then the Trump administration let the company exceed any deadline to close the deal.

TikTok and Oracle spokespersons did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while a Walmart spokesperson declined to comment.

In recent interviews, technology policy experts said Biden is likely to push the divestiture order aside and cease any Justice Department litigation against the trade regulation, which is still under technical appeal in the federal judicial system.

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