US Congress Goes All-In on a TikTok Ban

China hawks’ next target is Gen Z’s favorite app.

After months of dormancy, the conversation around banning TikTok in the United States has erupted, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle resoundingly endorsing a bill that would remove the short-form video app from U.S. app stores unless its owner, Chinese tech giant ByteDance, sells it to a U.S. or U.S.-allied firm.

In a vote Wednesday morning, 352 House representatives voted in favor of the bill, including 197 Republicans and 155 Democrats, with only 65 voting against. The bill now has to pass the Senate, where its path still remains unclear, but U.S. President Joe Biden said last week that he would sign it into law if it reaches his desk.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, sets a countdown clock on TikTok’s Chinese ownership without mentioning the app by name, giving any application that’s owned by a foreign adversary and deemed a threat to national security a period of 180 days to divest its ownership to a nonadversary entity.

Gallagher and several other lawmakers, however, have made it clear that TikTok is the intended target. “TikTok is a threat to our national security because it is owned by ByteDance, which does the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party,” Gallagher said in a speech on the House floor ahead of Wednesday’s vote. “This bill therefore forces TikTok to break up with the Chinese Communist Party.”

This is far from the first U.S. attempt to ban TikTok, with a forced divestiture first floated in August 2020 via executive order by former President Donald Trump. That effort was shut down by multiple federal courts, which deemed that the Trump administration “likely overstepped” in its attempted use of its authority to ban the app.

Going the legislative route this time will give any potential ban “maybe 200 percent more heft,” said Lindsay Gorman, a former Biden White House technology advisor who now heads the technology and geopolitics team at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy.

The pressure on TikTok continued into the Biden administration, but subsequent efforts in both the House and the Senate to ban or restrict the app failed to gain traction. Biden did sign into law a prohibition on the use of TikTok on U.S. government devices in 2022, but calls for a wider ban have not yet come to fruition.

That may now be shifting rapidly, considering the bipartisan and executive support for the latest bill and the fact that its passage in the House came barely a week after Gallagher introduced it. It’s part of a broader recognition of the threat from China’s tech industry that the Biden administration has spent much of its four-year term trying to blunt, including numerous restrictions on the export of semiconductor chips; outbound tech investment; and, more recently, an executive order on data security.

“The ban now sounds like a much more politically palatable option across the aisle, whereas that wasn’t the case just a couple of years ago,” said Reva Goujon, a director at Rhodium Group whose research focuses on U.S.-China relations and China’s industrial policies. The recent data security restrictions in particular indicated that “this was the window to say TikTok falls squarely within this theory of harm, and so why not revitalize this issue with bipartisan legislation?” she added. “All the drivers are there.”

TikTok has so far been more than willing to absorb U.S. pressure and allay fears about its data collection practices and Chinese influence over its algorithms, spending $1.5 billion on an initiative it calls “Project Texas” that seeks to wall off the data of U.S. TikTok users so that it can’t be accessed from outside the country. But with those efforts being called into question and lawmakers pushing ahead with a ban, the app is now going on the offensive.

“This legislation has a predetermined outcome: a total ban of TikTok in the United States,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement. Last week, TikTok sent push notifications to its millions of American users asking them to contact their elected representatives and tell them to oppose the legislation, leading to several congressional offices being inundated with calls.

A drawn illustration of a Russian soldier's hand using the "X" logo as a puppeteer.
A drawn illustration of a Russian soldier’s hand using the “X” logo as a puppeteer.

The social media platform is also turning its attention to the Senate, which is now tasked with taking the bill forward. “We are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents, and realize the impact on the economy, 7 million small businesses, and the 170 million Americans who use our service,” the spokesperson added.

The sheer size of that user base, which is dominated by young people (a 2023 estimate said more than 60 percent of American adults in Generation Z use the app daily), has also made any action against it politically fraught. Even as the Biden administration declares its support for a ban, the president’s reelection campaign has created a TikTok account and courted influencers on the platform in an effort to reach out to young voters.

“I’m actually somewhat surprised that it has gathered this much bipartisan momentum in Congress, given the fact that an effective ban on TikTok is so politically unpopular to a number of especially young American voters,” Goujon said. “But you have to weigh how many points you can score being tough on a China issue versus trying to avoid alienating your voters.”

Trump, the architect of the first U.S. TikTok ban, whose tough approach to China has been continued by his successor, did an even bigger and more surprising about-face last week, saying on his own social media platform, Truth Social, that banning TikTok would boost the business of Facebook, which he slammed as a “true Enemy of the People!” Trump reiterated that sentiment in a subsequent interview with CNBC but acknowledged that although he considers TikTok a national security threat, there are “a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it.” Trump was also asked about his recent meeting with billionaire and conservative donor Jeff Yass, who has a 15 percent stake in TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance. Trump said Yass “never mentioned TikTok” in their meeting.

Even Trump’s sudden opposition doesn’t appear to have dented Republican enthusiasm for curbing TikTok—only 15 Republicans in the House voted against the bill on Wednesday compared to 50 Democrats. National security concerns around the app are currently overriding anything else, with multiple U.S. intelligence officials warning against TikTok in a Senate hearing this week after the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, in its annual threat assessment report for 2024, highlighted the potential for China to use TikTok to interfere in U.S. elections.

There is still a long road ahead, even if the bill becomes law. TikTok reportedly plans to use every legal avenue to fight a forced divestiture, and critics of a ban have previously argued that it could violate the First Amendment’s free speech protections. China could also block ByteDance from selling TikTok, as it has hinted in the past that it would do. Chinese officials commenting this week slammed the bill as “bullying” that will backfire on the United States.

In Washington, however, the momentum for a ban has scarcely been greater. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, both vocal opponents of TikTok and proponents of previous legislation against it, said in a statement that they remain “united” in their concern about the app’s Chinese ownership. “We were encouraged by today’s strong bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives, and look forward to working together to get this bill passed through the Senate and signed into law,” they said.

TikTok’s own pushback against the legislation and its pressure campaign on lawmakers may have further hurt its cause this time around, according to Gorman.

“I think the ham-handed lobbying effort that we saw late last week should be a wake-up call—and perhaps it was for Congress—about how the Chinese Communist Party could order TikTok to mobilize the American electorate in support of its own policy goals,” she said. “This is as insulated from politics as we’re going to get … especially in an election year.”

Excerpts: Foreign Policy

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