A bill that could lead to a TikTok ban is gaining momentum in Congress. Here’s what to know.

Washington — A renewed push targeting TikTok is gaining momentum on Capitol Hill, where several previous efforts to ban the widely popular video-sharing app over concerns about its parent company’s ties to China have stalled in the past.

Owned by the China-based company ByteDance, TikTok is one of the most widely used apps in the U.S., with more than 150 million monthly users. Its meteoric rise over the past several years has been accompanied by warnings from national security officials and lawmakers that China’s communist government could gain access to its vast trove of data and use that information to spy on Americans.

While previous proposals to ban the app have largely stalled or run into legal issues, the latest push seems to be gaining steam among lawmakers and in the White House. Here’s what to know about the new legislation:

What is the new TikTok bill, and what would it do?

The 12-page bill, known as the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, aims to “protect the national security of the United States from the threat posed by foreign adversary controlled applications” like TikTok.

If passed and signed into law, it would make it illegal to distribute apps developed by ByteDance, its subsidiaries and other firms “controlled by a foreign adversary,” unless the company offloads the app within 180 days.

In effect, the bill would give ByteDance a choice: either sell TikTok before the six-month deadline, or retain control and be banned from U.S. app stores and web-hosting services.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Wisconsin Republican who leads the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, said Wednesday that the new bill would alleviate national security concerns while protecting Americans’ free speech rights.

Rep. Mike Gallagher and lawmakers speak about the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act at the U.S. Capitol on March 6, 2024.
Rep. Mike Gallagher and lawmakers speak about the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act at the U.S. Capitol on March 6, 2024.

Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

“If you value your personal freedom and privacy online, if you care about Americans’ national security at home, and yes, even if you want TikTok to stick around in the United States, this bill offers the only real step toward each of those goals,” said Gallagher, who introduced the bill with Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the top Democrat on the China committee.

Gallagher said it “provides the only path for the app to continue its operations in the United States without threatening Americans’ online freedom, privacy and security.” 

Why does Congress want to ban TikTok?

Lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly expressed concerns that TikTok could be forced to hand over the data it collects on millions of American users to the Chinese government, which could in turn use it for espionage purposes. They have also warned that the app could be used to spread propaganda and misinformation. 

“America’s foremost adversary has no business controlling a dominant media platform in the United States. TikTok’s time in the United States is over unless it ends its relationship with CCP-controlled ByteDance,” Gallagher said in a statement announcing the legislation, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

TikTok has denied that it shares information with the Chinese government, though its CEO acknowledged to Congress last year that TikTok had collected location data on U.S. users in the past, and said some historical data was still stored in servers that could be accessed by engineers from ByteDance. U.S. officials have said that Chinese law requires the company, which is based in Beijing, to make the app’s data available to the CCP.

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Then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2020 that would have blocked the app in the U.S. ByteDance reached an agreement with Oracle and Walmart to form a U.S.-based company to evade the ban, but those plans, and Trump’s order, were put on hold during an ensuing legal battle. Shortly after President Biden took office in 2021, he revoked Trump’s executive order so his administration could conduct its own security review.

The renewed push by lawmakers to force ByteDance to sell has attracted a range of cosponsors across the political spectrum.

GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the chair of the House Republican Conference, said that the app is “Communist Chinese malware that is poisoning the minds of our next generation and giving the CCP unfettered access to troves of Americans’ data.”

Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts said that “[e]nsuring that foreign adversaries do not have the ability to control what we see and hear online is an important piece of what should be a bipartisan effort to make social media safer for all Americans.”

Is TikTok going to be banned?

It’s too soon to say. The bill would still need to pass both the House and the Senate, and be signed into law by the president. If it does become law, ByteDance would have six months to sell before any ban would take effect.

Lawmakers who support the legislation say they don’t consider it to be a ban on TikTok, since it could continue to operate in the U.S. if ByteDance divests. Krishnamoorthi said the bill presents “a choice for ByteDance.”

“We implore ByteDance to sell TikTok,” he said at the news conference unveiling the bill. 

The White House shared a similar sentiment on Wednesday. Administration officials gave lawmakers technical help to craft the bill.

“We don’t see this as banning these apps. That’s not what this is,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters, saying the bill would ensure “ownership isn’t in the hands of those who may do us harm or harm. This is about our national security, obviously.”

Jean-Pierre also suggested the legislation may not yet stand up to legal scrutiny, but that the president is open to eventually supporting it. 

“Once it gets to a place where we think … it’s on legal standing, and it’s in a place where it can get out of Congress, then the president would sign it. But, we need to continue to work on it,” she said. 

The app is already prohibited on federal government devices. In 2022, Congress banned the app from being downloaded on government devices. The U.S. military prohibited it years earlier. 

Dozens of states have also banned the platform on government-issued devices, leading a number of public universities to restrict access to TikTok on campus to comply with those laws. Montana became the first state to pass an outright ban in May, but a federal judge temporarily blocked the law from taking effect in January, saying it was unconstitutional.

What is TikTok saying about the bill?

The message that appeared for some TikTok users on Thursday, March 7, 2024, imploring them to contact their members of Congress.
The message that appeared for some TikTok users on Thursday, March 7, 2024, imploring them to contact their members of Congress.

CBS News

A spokesperson for TikTok equated it to “an outright ban,” saying it would “trample the First Amendment rights of 170 million Americans and deprive 5 million small businesses of a platform they rely on to grow and create jobs.” 

TikTok sent an alert to users urging them to contact their lawmakers to tell them to vote against the bill. The app asked users for their ZIP code to look up their representatives’ phone numbers and prompt them to call.

“Stop a TikTok shutdown,” the notice said. “Speak up now — before your government strips 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression. This will damage millions of businesses, destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country, and deny artists an audience.” 

Gallagher told reporters Thursday that members’ offices were getting “a lot of calls,” with their phones ringing “off the hook.” His office said in a statement that the alert “misrepresents the bill as a ‘ban’ on TikTok in a blatant pressure campaign to intimidate members.”

Hannah Kelley, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the argument about whether or not the bill constitutes a ban can go both ways. 

“The reality is that there is an underlying ultimatum,” she said. “You can choose to divest or not divest, but there’s going to be something that snaps into place based on your decision.”  

What happens next?

The House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on the bill Thursday afternoon. If it advances out of committee, it’s unclear if it has enough support right now to pass the full House. 

If it does, it would then head to the Senate. A bipartisan bill known as the RESTRICT Act that would have given the Biden administration power to ban the app stalled last year in the upper chamber.

Gallagher said he hopes to vote “as quickly as possible,” and said he supports “whatever the most expeditious path to the floor is.” The Wisconsin Republican added that he has heard “a lot of interest, eagerness to introduce a companion piece of legislation” in the Senate, and said he hopes senators will “act swiftly.”

The bill would likely face a legal challenge from ByteDance, which sued the Trump administration over its attempt to ban TikTok in 2020.

Kelley said she wouldn’t be surprised if this bill ran into many of the same obstacles as the RESTRICT Act, which would have given Commerce Department authority to ban or restrict technology coming from U.S. adversaries, including China. Critics questioned whether the bill, which did not target TikTok specifically, would threaten freedom of speech or expand government surveillance. 

But Kelley said the current legislation also has the potential to progress further than the RESTRICT Act because “it is a little more surgical.” 

“It’s a little more targeted towards TikTok,” she said. “It still leaves the door open for giving the president the authority to make these designations around other companies that are tied to other foreign governments. But right now, the intent is to really go after the ByteDance-TikTok dynamic and make some headway there.” 

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