Democrats begin warming to the idea of government bans of TikTok

The purple logo for the TikTok app.
The logo TikTok app. (Reuters/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)
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A handful of Republicans on Capitol Hill and in state capitals around the country have led the charge in pushing for government bans of the social media app TikTok because of its ties to the Chinese government, but Democrats this week have begun to jump on board as well.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., on Tuesday became the first Democrat in Congress to endorse a national ban on TikTok, signing on as a sponsor to a bill put forward last month by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis.

“At a time when the Chinese Communist Party and our other adversaries abroad are seeking any advantage they can find against the United States through espionage and mass surveillance, it is imperative that we do not allow hostile powers to potentially control social media networks that could be easily weaponized against us,” Krishnamoorthi said in a statement.

“The bipartisan ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act is a strong step in protecting our nation from the nefarious digital surveillance and influence operations of totalitarian regimes,” he said. “Recent revelations surrounding the depth of TikTok’s ties to the CCP highlight the urgency of protecting Americans from these risks before it’s too late.”

Rubio is the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Democratic chair of that panel, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has not signed on to a national ban yet, but he indicated Tuesday that he is warming to the idea.

In a video press conference with local media from his home state, Warner said that while he may have some slight differences with details in Rubio’s bill, the main reason he has not endorsed the legislation is that he is waiting for the Justice Department to agree on a technical compromise with TikTok that would protect the data of American users.

“The Justice Department under the Biden administration has been promising for over a year that they have a way to separate ByteDance — which is the Chinese owner of TikTok — and protect the data” of American users from the Chinese government, Warner said. “But they have taken a year plus, they still don't have an answer, which I think is reinforcing my concern that there may not be a technical answer to provide those protections.”

Sen. Mark Warner, with a nameplate saying Mr. Warner, Chairman, questions witnesses.
Committee chair Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in February. (Drew Angerer/Pool via Reuters)

“My patience with the Justice Department is running thin,” Warner said. “Senator Rubio and I have worked a lot on this. I would take probably a different legislative approach, but if we don't get a solution out of the Justice Department, some type of legislative approach may very well be necessary.”

To date, Republican governors in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas, Maryland and Utah have all banned state employees from downloading TikTok on government devices.

Warner also told Yahoo News that he thinks more states need to follow suit.

“I think it’s absolutely appropriate that more states are prohibiting employees from having TikTok on their government-issued devices,” Warner said in a statement provided to Yahoo News. “TikTok is legally beholden to the Chinese Communist Party, and not only does it collect an alarming amount of information on users, but it could one day be used as a kind of propaganda machine to sway the minds of Americans or spread misinformation.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has blocked TikTok from most state employee devices for two years, said Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Office of Information Technology Services (ITS) of New York.

“New York State blocks the use of TikTok on ITS-issued mobile devices. We recognize that social media platforms have become integral to the way we communicate and share information, and to that end, there is extremely limited use of TikTok including for approved social media presences,” Reif told Yahoo News. “We join those calling on the federal government to take a comprehensive approach to address the significant security and privacy concerns related to TikTok.”

Warner said that there are conversations in Virginia about whether a ban for state employees should be spearheaded by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, or the Legislature — which is split between Democratic control of the state Senate and Republican control of the House of Delegates.

Rubio told Yahoo News that Democratic hesitation is to some degree due to the Biden administration’s ongoing attempts to find a compromise with TikTok.

“I am glad to see states taking action against TikTok, but for this to be successful we need a federal ban. Democrats who understand the security risks cannot continue deferring to the Biden Administration,” Rubio said in a statement provided to Yahoo News. “I hope more will follow Rep. Krishnamoorthi’s lead because this needs to be a bipartisan effort to succeed.”

Sen. Marco Rubio points his index finger upward.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., appears at his U.S. midterm election night gathering after winning his race in Miami on Nov. 8. (Reuters/Joe Skipper)

Momentum to act against TikTok has picked up steam in recent weeks following comments made last month by FBI Director Christopher Wray in testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee.

Wray told lawmakers he was “extremely concerned” about “the possibility that the Chinese government could use [TikTok] to control data collection on millions of users, or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so chose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices.”

Wray reiterated these concerns during a question-and-answer session after a speech at the University of Michigan on Dec. 2.

TikTok is “in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values, and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interests of the United States,” Wray said. “That should concern us.”

China’s ability to track American citizens and collect data on their behavior through TikTok has been a concern for some time.

“As the Chinese law dictates, a Chinese company has to be loyal first to the Communist Party of China, not to its shareholders or its customers. And that ought to be a giant red flag,” Warner said Tuesday.

But Warner, who has access to top-secret intelligence thanks to his position as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he is increasingly “more concerned” with the Chinese government’s ability to use TikTok as a tool of propaganda and misinformation to influence and manipulate the American public.

“I am deeply concerned,” Warner said. He used the example of Taiwan, a country that China has long wanted to conquer and subjugate.

“The rest of the world could end up having TikTok — and particularly to young people around the country and around the world — where suddenly they only get images that pop up that say Taiwan's part of China, that promotes Chinese foreign policy, Chinese Communist Party foreign policy,” Warner said.