The US House and Senate are considering bills that would give the federal government’s executive branch the power to ban TikTok, a popular video-sharing app, from phones across the country.
But will that ban ever come to pass? It remains unclear, but growing in likelihood as the issue is mired in both domestic and international politics and comes at a time when US-China relations are at their most tenuous point in recent memory. China’s Communist Party continues to express frequent and growing anger over US delegations to the island of Taiwan, which considers itself its own independent nation while Beijing (and many countries, at least officially) consider it to be part of China.
Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted along party lines to advance TikTok legislation to the full House; if signed into law, it would give the president the power to ban TikTok’s parent company ByteDance from processing transactions in the US, effectively prohibiting downloads of the app going forward.
On Tuesday, that conversation evolved significantly. A bipartisan group of senators, headed up by Mark Warner and John Thune of the Senate Intelligence Committee, unveiled a slightly different proposal that would allow for TikTok and other apps to be banned, restricted or otherwise punished by the Commerce Department for actions or policies believed to be a threat to national security.
The House committee’s party-line vote, with all Democrats voting against, is a sign that the first bill is doomed in the US Senate, which remains firmly in Democratic hands. The president’s party believes the GOP legislation goes too far, warning that its wide-reaching requirements would force the US government to sanction other companies that do business with ByteDance, including semiconductor chip manufacturers.
But the second bill has promise, and a key backer: The White House, which came out in support of the legislation while the senators were still discussing the announcement at their press conference.
“We applaud the bipartisan group of Senators, led by Senators Warner and Thune, who today introduced the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act. This legislation would empower the United States government to prevent certain foreign governments from exploiting technology services operating in the United States in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our national security,” said national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
“We look forward to continue working with both Democrats and Republicans on this bill, and urge Congress to act quickly to send it to the President’s desk,” he added.
Mr Warner, a Democrat from the defence and cybersecurity sector hub of Virginia, has gone on a media blitz in favour of his bipartisan legislation. He appeared on Fox News over the weekend, where he explained that “in terms of foreign technology, coming in to America, we’ve gotta have a systemic approach to ban or prohibit it, when necessary”.
“Does that mean TikTok?” asked the Fox anchor.
“That means TikTok is one of the potentials. Listen, TikTok is not only — you got 100 million Americans on TikTok 90 minutes a day. Even you guys would like that return, 90 minutes a day,” Mr Warner quipped in response. “They are taking data from Americans, not keeping it safe. But what worries me more with TikTok is, this can be a propaganda tool.”
He added: “If you look at what TikTok shows to the Chinese kids, which is all about science and engineering, versus what our kids see? It’s a radical difference.”
National security and cybersecurity hawks have long accused ByteDance of gathering personal information on Americans with the intention, or at least possibility, of providing that information en masse to the Chinese Communist Party. Republicans in particular have used grandiose language to describe the risk posed by the app, with Foreign Affairs panel chairman Michael McCaul referring to the popular platform for goofy dances and other memes as a “spy balloon” in the pocket of millions of Americans.
Joe Biden previously seemed unsure if his administration would make an effort to ban the app from Americans’ phones when asked in early February about the issue. The US government has, however, ordered the app deleted from all federal devices.
"I'm not sure. I know I don't have it on my phone," the president told reporters on 6 February.
His press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said during last Wednesday’s press briefing that she agreed with Republicans about the alleged national security risks posed by the app.
“We have concerns about the app and that’s why we have called on Congress to act — including how China is trying to collect the privacy of Americans,” she said.
Banning TikTok from US phones is a long-running campaign for national security hawks like Mr Warner and his counterparts in the GOP; former President Donald Trump instituted a ban via executive order during his presidency, though it never actually went into effect. TikTok sued the Trump administration and won a preliminary injunction halting the move, and then Mr Biden scrapped the order entirely upon taking office.
China’s goverment has predictably criticised the effort of US lawmakers to ban the app from Americans’ devices, and has long denied that it seeks the personal information of Americans or uses “backdoors” into technology built by Chinese companies to do so. Beijing calls US criticism of the company an effort to fight foreign competition against American companies.
“How unsure of itself can the world’s top superpower be to fear a young people’s favorite app like that? The US has been over-stretching the concept of national security and abusing state power to suppress foreign companies,” a Foriegn Affairs ministry spokesperson said on Tuesday. “We firmly oppose those wrong actions.”
“The US government should respect the principles of market economy and fair competition, stop suppressing the companies and provide an open, fair and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies in the US,” she continued.
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