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Finding homes for the waste that will (probably) outlive humanity

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On a seasonably warm day in August along a rugged stretch of the Southern California coast, work crews put on their reflective vests and hard hats. They directed a fleet of heavy vehicles known as cask handlers to haul great white concrete barrels from the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, known as SONGS. Each cask, about 17 feet tall and weighing 50 tons, was like a set of Russian nesting dolls: entombed inside was a stainless steel canister, which in turn held 37 cylinders of nuclear fuel rods. 

Since 2013, when regulators finally decided to shut SONGS down for good, teams of scientists, engineers, and policymakers have been hard at work to make sure it could be safely decommissioned. A total of 123 canisters were taken out of the plant and moved to their new home. Their journey wasn’t long—just to another area of the same site, about 100 feet away from the Pacific Ocean and just three feet above sea level. Now, with the spent fuel removed, the power plant itself can be dismantled. 

SONGS, sandwiched into the narrow strip between the sea and the highway that connects the urban sprawls of San Diego and Los Angeles, began operations in the late 1960s and churned out carbon-free energy for decades. But in 2012, regulators found extensive issues with its steam generator, an essential component of a nuclear reactor that prevents it from overheating. Replacing the parts wouldn’t be economical—one estimate priced it at more than $800 million. Not to mention that SONGS would then have to jump through stringent regulatory hurdles to resume operations. 

Shutting down was “the only logical decision in front of us,” says Doug Bauder, San Onofre’s chief nuclear officer. 

The US already has 83,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, enough to fill a football field about a dozen yards deep— and the leftovers will keep piling up.

That choice solved one problem, but not another: what to do with all the nuclear fuel that San Onofre had used. Its radioactive waste could outlast the human race, with spent fuel components that include ­plutonium-239, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, and iodine-129, with a half-life of 15.7 million years. But for now, there’s no place to store it permanently. 

So SONGS is keeping the rods of spent nuclear fuel in storage holes buried along the seismically sactive California coastline. They are sitting ducks for the next big earthquake, which is likely to hit within the next century. If the nuclear waste somehow got out, the results would be devastating. Even without a quake, the vaults are “easy to inundate,” says Dan Hirsch, the retired director of the Program on Environmental and Nuclear Policy at the University of California, Santa Cruz, “and groundwater can rise up into them.”

The plan is to eventually transport the fuel at San Onofre offsite, but where to? The US already has 83,000 metric tons of nuclear waste, enough to fill a football field about a dozen yards deep—and with two dozen plants currently in the process of decommissioning, the leftovers will keep piling up.

In 1982, the US Congress enacted the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which requires the US Department of Energy to find a geological repository for the spent fuel and take it there. Since 1987, the US government has focused its attention on developing an underground repository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. However, the site has been a political hot potato, with support for it swaying in response to local opposition and state and federal leadership. As a result, the government has so far been unable to fulfill its legal duty to find a long-term home for America’s radioactive waste.

“This is a situation where a political solution is needed to solve a technical problem,” says Bauder. 

Near the state line on Highway 176, which transects southeast New Mexico and west Texas, a white sign introducing visitors to Lea County, New Mexico, reads: “Welcome to the EnergyPlex.” It’s at the edge of the Permian Basin, a large sedimentary region rich in oil, natural gas, and potassium that spans a corner of the two states. 

Since the 1990s it’s been gaining a reputation as a place to store nuclear material—not the high-grade waste supposedly bound for Yucca Mountain, like the spent fuel rods of San Onofre, but the more ordinary, workaday leftovers of the industry, like gloves, helmets, and soil that have been contaminated with radioactive material. For this, the DOE set up the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, about 30 miles outside Carlsbad, New Mexico. It was authorized in 1979 but didn’t receive its first shipment until 1999. Since then, low-level waste from nearly two dozen nuclear reactors around America has been trucked in and buried over 2,000 feet under the surface. Waste Control Specialists (WCS), a similar facility, was erected just across the state line in Andrews, Texas, around the same time. 

The geology of the Permian is ideal for burying nuclear waste for the long haul. For one thing, the WIPP location gets natural protection from a thick layer of salt that surrounds it. “Over long periods of time, the salt will flow and the radioactive material will effectively be entombed in that salt,” explains Lewis Land, a hydrogeologist at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad. Most geoscientists, he says, believe that the salt is impermeable, which means there’s no chance for the waste to escape into the surrounding environment even if one of the barrels holding the material were to leak. Meanwhile, at the WCS facility, the waste will be covered by a 40-foot-thick layer of impenetrable red clay —which serves the same function as the salt at WIPP—once the storage sites are filled. 

SPENCER LOWELL

WIPP has been in operation for more than two decades with only a single incident. In 2012, a drum burst. It turned out it had contained not just discarded radioactive material but clay-based organic cat litter. Inorganic cat litter has long been used as chemical stabilizer for nuclear waste, but the organic stuff reacted with radioactive nitrate salts, releasing heat and building pressure until ultimately the drum broke, dispersing radiation throughout the underground facility. The dense salt contained the radiation, but it was an expensive mistake.

In 2008, Carlsbad’s then state representative John Heaton saw that Yucca Mountain was having difficulties getting through the political process. He started talking with others about the possibility of temporarily storing high-level nuclear waste at a site about half an hour from Carlsbad. The Eddy-Lea Energy Alliance (ELEA)—a group of local officials in two counties who were responsible for economic development—purchased a 1,000-acre patch of rangeland located along the highway. Holtec, an energy company headquartered in New Jersey, soon expressed interest in developing that land as a storage facility for high-level waste. 

“We were excited that someone was interested, and thought it was a viable part of their own business plan,” says Heaton, who is now the city’s energy development coordinator.

At the new Holtec facility, spent nuclear fuel would be shipped in from all over the country and put into interim storage. The proposal for the Holtec site was submitted in 2017 and is still under review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Holtec and ELEA should hear by 2021 whether or not construction can start. If all goes well, the soonest the site could receive waste would be 2023, says Heaton. The waste would be stored in canisters, which would make it easy to retrieve and move once a permanent repository is finally decided upon.

But the nuclear facility won’t only provide storage; it could also create stable work. The oil and gas industry has exploded in Carlsbad over the last three or four years, almost doubling the population. Rapid growth has strained resources in the sleepy, rural town, and RV camps—which locals refer to as “man camps”—have been set up for oil workers and their families. But these energy industries are particularly susceptible to boom-and-bust cycles: today, there’s a slowdown caused by covid-19, since lockdowns reduced the amount of oil required for transportation. Heaton says that nuclear storage could provide more than 200 jobs that would be stable and secure for the very long term.

Despite the economic benefits, some New Mexico state legislators have tried to block the storage facility, citing concerns that it would endanger public safety and other industries. Locals, too, are understandably worried. 

“There are the unknowns of nuclear,” says Nick King, a resident of Carlsbad and the preacher at the Carlsbad Mennonite Church. “We’re playing with things we don’t understand.” 

Defenders say the Holtec facility won’t be a permanent repository, only a resting spot until Yucca Mountain or its replacement is in operation. But the dispute over Yucca has already taken a generation, and farmers who have resisted being pushed out by the oil and gas boom are concerned about how long the waste will sit there. “I’d like to know what length of time ‘temporary’ means,” says Teresa Ogden, a third-generation farmer living in Loving, a town just south of Carlsbad. “We don’t know the long-term effects. I feel like we’re guinea pigs out here.” 

Ground control: SONGS keeps its waste buried onsite, which means it is potentially vulnerable to the next big earthquake.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA EDISON

It’s not just locals. Tom Isaacs, an advisor to the nuclear industry who is helping San Onofre as it figures out what to do with its nuclear waste, worries that the temporary sites will become effectively permanent—that “people would give up the momentum necessary in order to build the final repository and the storage site will be there forever.”

People are also scarred by New Mexico’s own history with the nuclear industry. The state was home to the test of the first atomic bomb in 1945, which is thought to have caused many cancers and other health problems throughout the basin range that was downwind from the test site.

“New Mexico has paid its dues,” says Gene Harbaugh, who has lived in Carlsbad for the last 30 years.  “We don’t owe anything to the nuclear industry.” 


What if we didn’t have to create new repositories? What if, instead, sites already designated for nuclear material could store it more safely? That was one of the questions that environmentalist Elizabeth Muller started thinking about in 2015. But when she asked experts what could be done with nuclear waste, she got immediate pushback: “People in the business said, ‘There’s no appetite for new ideas in nuclear waste. Nothing ever happens in this industry.’” But, she adds, “just because nothing has ever happened in nuclear waste doesn’t mean you should dismiss it as ‘Nothing’s ever going to happen.’” 

As relative newcomers to the field, Muller and her father—the physicist and reformed climate change skeptic Richard A. Muller—heard policy advisors and engineers talk about how boreholes, drilled deep in the earth by the oil and gas industries, could also be used for storage. In 2016, the Mullers founded Deep Isolation, a private company based in Berkeley, California, to explore using them for nuclear material. 

The company’s top priority is to get the waste below ground; accidents above ground can spell catastrophe. But the Mullers realized that one contentious issue plaguing Yucca Mountain and WIPP was the transportation of nuclear waste across state lines. 

“People don’t want nuclear waste coming through their backyard,” Elizabeth Muller explains. Deep Isolation plans to circumvent that entirely by burying waste where it is, whether that is around an existing power plant or near some other Department of Energy facility. (Long-term burial at any non-designated facility would require community consent.)

“People really want a solution for climate change. There’s no smokestack at a nuclear plant, but … if we’re going to deploy more nuclear energy, this waste question is a big one.”

Their method involves drilling holes 18 inches in diameter and between 1,000 and 3,000 meters deep, and then drilling sideways to create a place to bury specially designed, corrosion-resistant cylinders that store spent fuel assemblies. Each canister is a little larger than a nuclear fuel rod assembly—more like a glove around the spent fuel than the vast barrels at San Onofre—and they are shuttled down the hole in a chain of two or three. 

One benefit of this method, says Muller, is that the same technique could serve for both temporary and permanent storage. In January 2019, Deep Isolation proved that canisters could not only be sent underground but also retrieved, should the DOE manage to create a permanent repository elsewhere at some later point and want to transfer material there. 

Their method won’t work everywhere, though. SONGS, for example, is located on land that will eventually have to be returned to its owner, the US Navy. 

Despite the company’s proof-of-principle experiment, others are skeptical that Deep Isolation’s method will necessarily be safe. 

Lindsay Krall, a geochemist who researches nuclear waste burial at Stanford University, worries that the company’s canisters wouldn’t be buried deep enough to prevent waste from leaking into the biosphere. What’s more, the narrow boreholes can only accommodate thin canisters, which may be insufficient for long-term safety.  

“There is no reason to expect that borehole disposal of spent fuel will attain cost savings,” Krall says. “Rather, [it] represents a technological risk, with a significant opportunity for failure that would result in increased disposal costs and decreased public safety.” 

But John Grimsich, Deep Isolation’s director of applied science, says that burial sites they choose will have ideal geology for long-term storage, far away from sources of groundwater. The highest radiation doses that Muller and her colleagues have calculated at the ideal sites are lower by a factor of 10,000 than the average exposure a person receives annually from the planet’s background radiation.


Given the amount of waste already out there, some believe it would be more responsible to simply create less of it. But can that be done without giving up nuclear, one of the best carbon-free options for generating energy? 

One option is to reuse the waste. In France, nuclear waste has been reprocessed since the dawn of the industry in the 1940s. Since 1976, the nuclear power and renewable energy group Orano has processed more than 36,000 metric tons of used fuel, which is responsible for generating 10% of France’s nuclear electricity. Orano’s plant recycles around 1,100 metric tons per year. 

WIPP tunnel
Salt of the earth: Men work to seal a salt tunnel in the Carlsbad Waste Isolation Pilot Plant.
BRIAN VANDER BRUG/LOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY

The process of recycling nuclear fuel takes years. Spent fuel rods are taken from nuclear reactors and placed in a storage pool to cool for two years. When they get to around 570 °F, the fuel rods are packed into steel canisters and brought to the Orano plant in the northwesternmost point in France, in the town of La Hague. After the rods cool below 80 °F, they are cut into smaller pieces before being placed in nitric acid and dissolved. Then the recyclable material—a mixture of uranium and plutonium—gets separated from other fission products in the spent fuel and purified. Finally, it is remixed to produce new fuel. 

The US has developed its own approved technology for reprocessing, but in 2007 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decreed that it would be too expensive to pursue without an investment from the DOE—which has not materialized.

Instead, there’s growing interest in developing new kinds of nuclear reactors that produce less waste. 

Most current plants use generation II or III reactors, which use water to cool down the fuel once its atoms have split. Generation IV reactors use heavier coolants like sodium or molten salt, which is technically challenging but can produce higher levels of power generation with a lower risk of meltdown. One of the companies building sodium-­cooled systems, Terrapower, makes reactors that can also run on spent or depleted uranium.

Reprocessing the uranium can significantly reduce waste, says Terrapower’s CEO, Chris Levesque. But it doesn’t stop waste from being produced altogether. Levesque and others fear that nuclear waste may be intercepted and used to aid in the proliferation and development of nuclear weapons. 

In Levesque’s long career in the nuclear industry, dealing with waste has been as much of an issue in getting people to accept nuclear energy as the safety of the reactors themselves. “People really want a solution for climate change. There’s no smokestack at a nuclear plant,” he says. “But they want to hear about some solution for waste. If we’re going to deploy more nuclear energy, this waste question is a big one to answer to people’s satisfaction.” 


The future of nuclear waste spans thousands of years, but plants are being decommissioned right now. Until a final resting place can be decided, temporary repositories—like the Holtec facility or Deep Isolation’s proposed boreholes—are appealing options for corralling the waste. The alternative is having it sit above ground, where an accident could have much more immediate consequences.

Still, Dan Hirsch argues that the conundrum is a “fundamental ethical issue.” “It’s not appropriate to dump the waste on a minority community in Texas or New Mexico,” he says. What’s more, moving waste by rail to the Permian might require transportation through the Navajo Nation, which banned that in the 2012 Radioactive Materials Transportation Act. 

 “This generation built nuclear power plants,” says Tom Isaacs. “We have benefited immensely from electricity with no carbon emissions. We have a responsibility to solve the problem. That takes a repository.” 

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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GDPR enforcement must level up to catch big tech, report warns

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A new report by European consumer protection umbrella group Beuc, reflecting on the barriers to effective cross-border enforcement of the EU’s flagship data protection framework, makes awkward reading for the regional lawmakers and regulators as they seek to shape the next decades of digital oversight across the bloc.

Beuc’s members filed a series of complaints against Google’s use of location data in November 2018 — but some two years on from raising privacy concerns there’s been no resolution of the complaints.

The tech giant continues to make billions in ad revenue, including by processing and monetize Internet users’ location data. Its lead data protection supervisor, under GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism for dealing with cross-border complaints, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC), did finally open an investigation in February this year.

But it could still be years before Google faces any regulatory action in Europe related to its location tracking.

This is because Ireland’s DPC has yet to issue any cross-border GDPR decisions, some 2.5 years after the regulation started being applied. (Although, as we reported recently, a case related to a Twitter data breach is inching towards a result in the coming days.)

By contrast, France’s data watchdog, the CNIL, was able to complete a GDPR investigation into the transparency of Google’s data processing in much quicker order last year.

This summer French courts also confirmed the $57M fine it issued, slapping down Google’s appeal.

But the case predated Google coming under the jurisdiction of the DPC. And Ireland’s data regulator has to deal with a disproportionate number of multinational tech companies, given how many have established their EU base in the country.

The DPC has a major backlog of cross-border cases, with more than 20 GDPR probes involving a number of tech companies including Apple, Facebook/WhatsApp and LinkedIn. (Google has also been under investigation in Ireland over its adtech since 2019.)

This week the EU’s internet market commissioner, Thierry Breton, said regional lawmakers are well aware of enforcement “bottlenecks” in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

He suggested the Commission has learned lessons from this friction — claiming it will ensure similar concerns don’t affect the future working of a regulatory proposal related to data reuse that he was out speaking in public to introduce.

The Commission wants to create standard conditions for rights-respecting reuse of industrial data across the EU, via a new Data Governance Act (DGA), which proposes similar oversight mechanisms as are involved in the EU’s oversight of personal data — including national agencies monitoring compliance and a centralized EU steering body (which they’re planning to call the European Data Innovation Board as a mirror entity to the European Data Protection Board).

The Commission’s ambitious agenda for updating and expanding the EU’s digital rules framework, means criticism of GDPR risks taking the shine off the DGA before the ink has dried on the proposal document — putting pressure on lawmakers to find creative ways to unblock GDPR’s enforcement “bottleneck”. (Creative because national agencies are responsibility for day to day oversight, and Member States are responsible for resourcing DPAs.) 

In an initial GDPR review this summer, the Commission praised the regulation as a “modern and horizontal piece of legislation” and a “global reference point” — claiming it’s served as a point of inspiration for California’s CCPA and other emerging digital privacy frameworks around the world.

But they also conceded GDPR enforcement is lacking.

The best answer to this concern “will be a decision from the Irish data protection authority about important cases”, the EU’s justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, said in June.

Five months later European citizens are still waiting.

Beuc’s report — which it’s called The long and winding road: Two years of the GDPR: A cross-border data protection case from a consumer perspective — details the procedural obstacles its member organizations have faced in seeking to obtain a decision related to the original complaints, which were filed with a variety of DPAs around the EU.

This includes concerns of the Irish DPC making unnecessary “information and admissibility checks”; as well as rejecting complaints brought by an interested organization on the grounds they lack a mandate under Irish law, because it does not allow for third party redress (yet the Dutch consumer organization had filed the complaint under Dutch law which does…).

The report also queries why the DPC chose to open an own volition enquiry into Google’s location data activities (rather than a complaint-led enquiry) — which Beuc says risks a further delay to reaching a decision on the complaints themselves.

It further points out that the DPC’s probe of Google only looks at activity since February 2020 not November 2018 when the complaints were made — meaning there’s a missing chunk of Google’s location data processing that’s not even being investigated yet.

It notes that three of its member organizations involved in the Google complaints had considered applying for a judicial review of the DPC’s decision (NB: others have resorted to that route) — but they decided not to proceed in part because of the significant legal costs it would have entailed.

The report also points out the inherent imbalance of GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism shifting the administration of complaints to the location of companies under investigation — arguing they therefore benefit from “easier access to justice” (vs the ordinary consumer faced with undertaking legal proceedings in a different country and (likely) language).

“If the lead authority is in a country with tradition in ‘common law’, like Ireland, things can become even more complex and costly,” Beuc’s report further notes.

Another issue it raises is the overarching one of rights complaints having to fight what it dubs ‘a moving target’ — given well-resourced tech companies can leverage regulatory delays to (superficially) tweak practices, greasing continued abuse with misleading PR campaigns. (Something Beuc accuses Google of doing.)

DPAs must “adapt their enforcement approach to intervene more rapidly and directly”, it concludes.

“Over two years have passed since the GDPR became applicable, we have now reached a turning point. The GDPR must finally show its strength and become a catalyst for urgently needed changes in business practices,” Beuc goes on in a summary of its recommendations. “Our members experience and that of other civil society organisations, reveals a series of obstacles that significantly hamper the effective application of the GDPR and the correct functioning of its enforcement system.

BEUC recommends to the relevant EU and national authorities to make a comprehensive and joint effort to ensure the swift enforcement of the rules and improve the position of data subjects and their representing organisations, particularly in the framework of cross-border enforcement cases.”

We reached out to the Commission and the Irish DPC with questions about the report. But at the time of writing neither had responded. We’ve also asked Google for comment.

Beuc earlier sent a list of eight recommendations for “efficient” GDPR enforcement to the Commission in May.

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Equity Dive: Edtech’s 2020 wakeup call

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Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch’s venture capital-focused podcast (now on Twitter!), where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week, we’re doing a first-ever for the show and taking a deep dive into one specific sector: Edtech.

Natasha Mascarenhas has covered education technology since Stanford first closed down classes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In the wake of the historic shuttering of much of the United States’ traditional institutions of education, the sector has formed new unicorns, attracted record-breaking venture capital totals, and most of all, enjoyed time in a long-overdue spotlight.

For this Equity Dive, we zero into one part of that conversation: Edtech’s impact on higher education. We brought together Udacity co-founder and Kitty Hawk CEO Sebastian Thrun, Eschaton founder and college drop-out Ian Dilick, and Cowboy Ventures investor Jomayra Herrera to answer our biggest questions.

Here’s what we got into:

  • How the state of remote school is leading to gap years among students
  • A framework for how to think of higher education’s main three products (including which is most defensible over time)
  • What learnings we can take from this COVID-19 experiment on remote schooling to apply to the future
  • Why ed-tech is flocking to the notion of life-long learning
  • And the reality of who self-paced learning serves — and who it leaves out

And much, much more. If you celebrate, thank you for spending part of your Thanksgiving with the Equity crew. We’re so thankful to have this platform and audience, and it means a ton that y’all tune in each week.

Finally, if you liked this format and want to see more, feel free to tweet us your thoughts or leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. Talk soon!

Equity drops every Monday at 7:00 a.m. PDT and Thursday afternoon as fast as we can get it out, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

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TikTok’s epic rise and stumble

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TikTok’s rise in the West is unprecedented for any Chinese tech company, and so is the amount of attention it has attracted from politicians worldwide. Below is a timeline of how TikTok grew from what some considered another “copycat” short video app to global dominance and eventually became a target of the U.S. government.

2012-2017: The emergence of TikTok

These years were a period of fast growth for ByteDance, the Beijing-based parent company behind TikTok. Originally launched in China as Douyin, the video-sharing app quickly was wildly successful in its domestic market before setting its sights on the rest of the world. 

2012 

Zhang Yiming, a 29-year-old serial engineer, establishes ByteDance in Beijing.

2014

Chinese product designer Alex Zhu launches Musical.ly.

2016

ByteDance launches Douyin, which is regarded by many as a Musical.ly clone. It launches Douyin’s overseas version TikTok later that year.

2017-2019: TikTok takes off in the United States

TikTok merges with Musical.ly and and launches in the U.S., where it quickly becomes popular, the first social media app from a Chinese tech company to achieve that level of success there. But at the same time, its ownership leads to questions about national security and censorship, against the backdrop of the U.S.-China tariff wars and increased scrutiny of Chinese tech companies (including Huawei and ZTE) under the Trump administration.

2017

November

ByteDance buys Musical.ly for $800 million to $1 billion. (link)

2018

August

TikTok merges with Musical.ly and becomes available in the U.S. (link)

October

TikTok surpassed Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube in downloads. (link)

November

Facebook launches TikTok rival Lasso. (link)

2019

February

TikTok reaches one billion installs on the App Store and Google Play. (link)

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission fines TikTok $5.7 million over violation of children privacy law. (link)

May

TikTok tops the App Store for the fifth quarter in a row. (link)

September

TikTok is found censoring topics considered sensitive by the Beijing government. (link)

October

TikTok bans political ads (link) but does not appear to take action on hashtags related to American politics. (link)

TikTok taps corporate law firm K&L Gates for advice on content moderation in the U.S. (link)

U.S. lawmakers ask intelligence chief Joseph Maguire to investigate if TikTok poses a threat to national security. (link)

TikTok says it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and would not do so if asked. (link)

November

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States reportedly opens a national security probe into TikTok. (link)

Instagram launches TikTok rival Reels. (link)

TikTok apologizes for removing a viral video about abuses against Uighurs. (link)

December

The U.S. Navy reportedly bans TikTok. (link)

The first half of 2020: Growth amid government scrutiny

The app is now a mainstay of online culture in America, especially among Generation Z, and its user base has grown even wider as people seek diversions during the COVID-19 pandemic. But TikTok faces an escalating series of government actions, creating confusion about its future in America. 

A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing

A man wearing a shirt promoting TikTok is seen at an Apple store in Beijing on Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

2020

January

Revived Dubsmash grows into TikTok’s imminent rival. (link)

March

TikTok lets outside experts examine its moderation practices at its “transparency center.” (link)

Senators introduce a bill to restrict the use of TikTok on government devices. (link)

TikTok brings in outside experts to craft content policies. (link)

April

TikTok introduces parental controls. (link)

TikTok tops two billion downloads. (link)

June

TikTok discloses how its content recommendation system works. (link)

YouTube launches TikTok rival. (link)

July

Facebook shuts down TikTok rival Lasso. (link)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says the U.S. is looking to ban TikTok. (link)

TikTok announced a $200 million fund for U.S. creators. (link)

Trump told reporters he will use executive power to ban TikTok. (link)

The second half of 2020: TikTok versus the U.S. government

After weeks of speculation, Trump signs an executive order in August against ByteDance. ByteDance begins seeking American buyers for TikTok, but the company also fights the executive order in court. A group of TikTok creators also file a lawsuit challenging the order. The last few months of 2020 become a relentless, and often confusing, flurry of events and new developments for TikTok observers, with no end in sight. 

August

Reports say ByteDance agrees to divest TikTok’s U.S. operations and Microsoft will take over. (link)

Trump signals opposition to the ByteDance-Microsoft deal. (link)

Microsoft announces discussions about the TikTok purchase will complete no later than September 15. (link)

Trump shifts tone and says he expects a cut from the TikTok sale. (link)

TikTok broadens fact-checking partnerships ahead of the U.S. election. (link)

August 7: In the most significant escalation of tensions between the U.S. government and TikTok, Trump signs an executive order banning “transactions” with ByteDance in 45 days, or on September 20. (link). TikTok says the order was “issued without any due process” and would risk “undermining global businesses’ trust in the United States’ commitment to the rule of law.” (link)

August 9: TikTok reportedly plans to challenge the Trump administration ban. (link)

Oracle is also reportedly bidding for the TikTok sale. (link)

August 24: TikTok and ByteDance file their first lawsuit in federal court against the executive order, naming President Trump, Secretary of State Wilbur Ross and the U.S. Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit seeks to prevent the government from banning TikTok. Filed in U.S. District Court Central District of California (case number 2:20-cv-7672), it claims Trump’s executive order is unconstitutional.  (link)

TikTok reaches 100 million users in the U.S. (link)

August 27: TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer resigns after 100 days. (link)

Kevin Mayer (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney)

Walmart says it has expressed interest in teaming up with Microsoft to bid for TikTok. (link)

August 28: China’s revised export laws could block TikTok’s divestment. (link)

September

China says it would rather see TikTok shuttered than sold to an American firm. (link)

September 13: Oracle confirms it is part of a proposal submitted by ByteDance to the Treasury Department in which Oracle will serve as the “trusted technology provider.” (link)

September 18: The Commerce Department publishes regulations against TikTok that will take effect in two phases. The app will no longer be distributed in U.S. app stores as of September 20, but it gets an extension on how it operates until November 12. After that, however, it will no longer be able to use internet hosting services in the U.S., rendering it inaccessible.  (link)

On the same day as the Commerce Department’s announcement, two separate lawsuits are filed against Trump’s executive order against TikTok. One is filed by ByteDance, while the other is by three TikTok creators.

The one filed by TikTok and ByteDance is in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (case number 20-cv-02658), naming President Trump, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the Commerce Department as defendants. It is very similar to the suit ByteDance previously filed in California. TikTok and ByteDance’s lawyers argue that Trump’s executive order violates the Administrative Procedure Act, the right to free speech, and due process and takings clauses.

The other lawsuit, filed by TikTok creators Douglas Marland, Cosette Rinab and Alec Chambers, also names the president, Ross and the Department of Commerce as defendants. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (case number 2:20-cv-04597), argues that Trump’s executive order “violates the first and fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution and exceeds the President’s statutory authority.”

September 19: One day before the September 20 deadline that would have forced Google and Apple to remove TikTok from their app stores, the Commerce Department extends it by a week to September 27. This is reportedly to give ByteDance, Oracle and Walmart time to finalize their deal.

On the same day, Marland, Rinab and Chambers, the three TikTok creators, file their first motion for a preliminary injunction against Trump’s executive order. They argue that the executive order violates freedom of speech and deprives them of “protected liberty and property interests without due process,” because if a ban goes into effect, it would prevent them from making income from TikTok-related activities, like promotional and branding work.

September 20: After filing the D.C. District Court lawsuit against Trump’s executive order, TikTok and ByteDance formally withdraw their similar pending suit in the U.S. District Court of Central District of California.

September 21: ByteDance and Oracle confirm the deal but send conflicting statements over TikTok’s new ownership. TikTok is valued at an estimated $60 billion. (link)

September 22: China’s state newspaper says China won’t approve the TikTok sale, labeling it “extortion.” (link)

September 23: TikTok and ByteDance ask the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to grant a preliminary injunction against the executive order, arguing that the September 27 ban removing TikTok from app stores will “inflict direct, immediate, and irreparable harm on Plaintiffs during the pendency of this case.” (link)

September 26: U.S. District Court Judge Wendy Beetlestone denies Marland, Rinab and Chambers’ motion for a preliminary injunction against the executive order, writing that the three did not demonstrate “they will suffer immediate, irreparable harm if users and prospective users cannot download or update” TikTok after September 27, since they will still be able to use the app.

September 27: Just hours before the TikTok ban was set to go into effect, U.S. District Court Judge Carl J. Nichols grants ByteDance’s request for a preliminary injunction while the court considers whether the app poses a risk to national security. (link)

September 29: TikTok launches a U.S. election guide in the app. (link)

October

comedian Sarah Cooper's page is displayed on the TikTok app

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 07: In this photo illustration, comedian Sarah Cooper’s page is displayed on the TikTok app. (Photo Illustration by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Snapchat launches a TikTok rival. (link)

TikTok says it’s enforcing actions against hate speech. (link)

TikTok partners with Shopify on social commerce (link)

October 13: After failing to win their first request for a preliminary injunction, TikTok creators Marland, Rinab and Chambers file a second one. This time, their request focuses on the Commerce Department’s November 12 deadline, which they say will make it impossible for users to access or post content on TikTok if it goes into effect.

October 30: U.S. District Judge Wendy Beetlestone grants TikTok creators Marland, Chambers and Rinab’s second request for a preliminary injunction against the TikTok ban. (link)

November

November 7: After five days of waiting for vote counts, Joe Biden is declared the president-elect by CNN, followed by the AP, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox News. With Biden set to be sworn in as president on January 20, the future of Trump’s executive order against TikTok becomes even more uncertain.

November 10: ByteDance asks the federal appeal court to vacate the U.S. government’s divestiture order that would force it to sell the app’s American operations by November 12. Filed as part of the lawsuit in D.C. District Court, ByteDance said it asked the Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States for an extension, but hadn’t been granted one yet. (link)

November 12: This is the day that the Commerce Department’s ban on transactions with ByteDance, including providing internet hosting services to TikTok (which would stop the app from being able to operate in the U.S.), was set to go into effect. But instead the case becomes more convoluted as the U.S. government sends mixed messages about TikTok’s future.

The Commerce Department says it will abide by the preliminary injunction granted on October 30 by Judge Beetlestone, pending further legal developments. But, around the same time, the Justice Department files an appeal against Beetlestone’s ruling. Then Judge Nichols sets new deadlines (December 14 and 28) in the D.C. District Court lawsuit (the one filed by ByteDance against the Trump administration) for both sides to file motions and other new documents in the case. (link)

November 25: The Trump administration grants ByteDance a seven-day extension of the divestiture order. The deadline for ByteDance to finalize a sale of TikTok is now December 4.

This timeline will be updated as developments occur.

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