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The clock has begun ticking for TikTok to find a new owner.

President Joe Biden signed legislation Wednesday that would ban TikTok in the United States unless its Chinese parent, ByteDance, sells the app. TikTok plans to challenge the law in court, but if it fails, the company would have to find a buyer, and fast.

That raises the question of who the US government might view as a suitable new owner of a social media platform with 170 million US users and a rising challenger to legacy social media giants such as Facebook-parent Meta.

The prospect of a TikTok sale could lead to a potential feeding frenzy, drawing out everyone from tech companies to retailers and private equity firms and investment bankers.

And an added headache for any potential buyer: China’s commerce ministry has previously said it would “firmly oppose” any forced sale of TikTok.

There’s no apparent consensus on a favorite bidder yet. But some candidates seem more likely than others, legal experts and business analysts say.

Any effort by an established tech giant with a large social media presence would immediately trigger antitrust red flags, according to analysts.

Meta is already fighting a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit that alleges its purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram violated US antitrust law, and the FTC is actively seeking to break up the company.

Google is also fighting Justice Department antitrust suits on two fronts. These are related to its search and advertising technology businesses, not its ownership of YouTube. Still, the company is under such close scrutiny that it would be a poor candidate to buy TikTok, experts say.

“If it’s Amazon, Microsoft, Google or Meta, I just think you’re going to see substantial antitrust concern,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former Justice Department antitrust official. “If you were to say, like, an Intel, or a Cisco, maybe Oracle, I don’t know. If you were to tell me it’s Verizon, or AT&T, maybe it’s not as big of a problem.”

Jasmine Enberg, principal analyst at Emarketer, highlighted a paradox: Only the largest, most dominant tech giants may have the resources to buy TikTok. But it may be they who would attract the most regulatory skepticism.

“Any potential buyer must have deep pockets and a strong stomach,” Enberg said. “While many would want to get their hands on TikTok’s coveted algorithm, most of those who could afford to buy the app wouldn’t be able to clear antitrust hurdles.”

Microsoft recently attracted heaps of antitrust scrutiny when it sought to buy the video game publisher Activision Blizzard in one of the largest tech mergers in history. But it ultimately overcame an FTC lawsuit and placated other international regulators to close the blockbuster deal last fall.

Fresh off that success, Microsoft could find itself with a renewed opportunity to strike a deal with TikTok. While Microsoft owns LinkedIn, a social network geared to professionals, it doesn’t have an app like TikTok in its portfolio.

Microsoft had been one of the handful of contenders to buy TikTok in 2020 when President Donald Trump first pushed for a sale. The negotiations had also involved Walmart, which said at the time it was partnering with Microsoft on a possible deal.

Both companies dropped their efforts after TikTok agreed to work with Oracle on Project Texas, the initiative by TikTok to store US user data on Oracle-owned servers and that was intended to satisfy US national security concerns.

Four years later, with TikTok’s future in doubt, so is the fate of Project Texas, and that means those who had previously expressed interest in TikTok may have another shot. And Oracle, too.

In a move that caught many by surprise, former Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announced last month that he is putting together a team of investors to buy TikTok.

The exact details of Mnuchin’s offer are hazy, though he has reportedly suggested a deal could exclude TikTok’s powerful content algorithm that has formed the basis of its popularity. That might get around Chinese government export restrictions on recommendation algorithms, but would essentially mean buying only TikTok’s brand and leaving its most treasured asset off the table.

The unusual pitch has already raised eyebrows: Mnuchin helped lead the Trump administration’s effort to ban TikTok the first time around. Mnuchin has said publicly that that experience gave him a deep understanding of TikTok and how it operates, including the data it collects on users.

That Mnuchin may now leverage that inside knowledge for his own potential benefit reflects a conflict of interest, some critics say.

It would be a “disgrace if [Mnuchin] was allowed to turn around and use that classified information to further enrich himself and his Saudi buddies,” Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden told The Washington Post last month.

Buying TikTok would also turn Mnuchin into a rival to Trump, who is the chairman and leading shareholder of the company that owns Truth Social, a social media platform where Trump is its most popular user.

Other businessmen who’ve expressed interest include Kevin O’Leary, the Canadian chairman of the private venture capital firm O’Leary Ventures. As with Mnuchin, O’Leary has said a potential acquisition of TikTok may have to exclude TikTok’s algorithm. His suggested opening bid? Between $20 billion and $30 billion.

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