There's Growing Momentum in Congress to Take On TikTok—and Some Want to Ban It Entirely
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) talks to reporters on his way to the Senate weekly policy luncheons, at the U.S. Capitol on December 06, 2022 in Washington, DC. Credit - Kevin Dietsch—Getty Images
Millions of Americans may love TikTok, but there’s a growing coalition in Congress that wants to crack down on the video-sharing platform, with some lawmakers trying to ban it completely.
Last week, two of Washington’s staunchest China hawks—Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado—introduced legislation that would prohibit users from downloading the Chinese-owned app on all U.S. devices. Amid rising international concerns about the platform’s data-collection practices, it would be the most aggressive action yet to curb what the two Republicans are calling a national security threat.
While Hill sources say their legislation has little chance of passing in the new Congress, there’s still growing bipartisan interest on Capitol Hill to take on the popular social media service that harvests its users’ sensitive personal information.
Hawley and Buck have already seen some success. In December, Congress passed a different bill they introduced last year that banned the app on federal government devices. At least 14 other states have enacted similar restrictions. “I think the security concerns related to TikTok are just as urgent with private citizens as they are with federal employees, particularly when you really realize that TikTok is a backdoor for the CCP into every American’s private life,” Hawley tells TIME, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
Hawley and Buck’s new bill, the No TikTok on United States Devices Act, comes as members on both sides of the aisle are discussing more expansive proposals to protect the data of users who aren’t under Uncle Sam’s employ.
Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat, is not on board with an outright prohibition of TikTok, but he says he would support legislation that would require TikTok to break off from its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance. “I would force the sale of TikTok to an American company,” he tells TIME. “I think that that’s the approach that would be a reasonable one. There’s been a lot of conversation on these issues with both Republicans and Democrats.”
Independent investigations have found that TikTok’s data collection methods include the ability to amass the contact lists, calendars, hard drives, and locations of its users on an hourly basis. That’s not much different from the capabilities and practices of American-based Big Tech firms like Facebook and Google, but because TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, it is subject to Chinese national security law, which requires that companies share data requested by the government. “If there ever is a cyber war, it’s information that’s gathered like this that will be used against American citizens,” Buck tells TIME.
ByteDance has denied a connection to the Chinese government and has called the allegations “misinformation.”
“Sen. Hawley and Rep. Buck’s call for a total ban of TikTok takes a piecemeal approach to national security and a piecemeal approach to broad industry issues like data security, privacy, and online harms,” says Brooke Oberwetter, spokeswoman for TikTok. “We hope that they will focus their energies on efforts to address those issues holistically, rather than pretending that banning a single service would solve any of the problems they are concerned about or make Americans any safer.”
This month, the company’s top executives and lobbyists have been briefing members of Congress and influential D.C. policy researchers about a $1.5 billion effort it has launched called Project Texas to address TikTok’s security concerns. The move follows reports that TikTok employees surveilled Forbes journalists and China-based employees accessed Americans’ user data.
Hawley and Buck say that the sale to an American owner would satisfy at least part of their concerns. Barring that, however, they want to press forward on their bill.
But while there’s increasing interest from lawmakers to take legislative action to protect American users from having their data collected and stored by the popular app, there’s still strong resistance to a full-scale ban. Some worry that such a move would block an avenue to reach young voters. At least 32 members of Congress (all Democrats and one independent) have TikTok accounts. Others are concerned about the free speech implications of shuttering a social media communications platform. And more still don’t want to interfere in the workings of the free market. The bill’s opponents have encouraged legislators to instead strengthen federal consumer data privacy laws that would apply to all major tech firms, not just TikTok.
“If lawmakers in the U.S are concerned about the Chinese government or other governments accessing American data, they should pass a frickin’ data privacy law to limit the degree to which all companies, including TikTok, can harvest, collect, and store so much data about all of us in the first place,” says Evan Greer, who leads the progressive advocacy group Fight for the Future.
Hawley, a graduate of Yale Law School, argues that banning the app doesn’t violate the First Amendment because it’s not a form of viewpoint discrimination. “What we’re saying here is that this is a national security concern: You have a hostile foreign nation that is using this app to gather information on Americans without their consent, and which by the way, they cannot stop. If you have the app on the phone, it’s not like, ‘Well, I’ll just go and turn off the spy settings.’ Nope, not available.”
Still, Hawley recognizes his bill faces an uphill climb. “I’m clear eyed about this,” he says. A similar bill introduced by Republicans Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mike Gallagher last term that would have not only banned TikTok but any social media company with links to China, Russia, or another adversarial nation went nowhere.
Hawley expects fierce opposition from industry lobbyists who will try to squash the measure before it gets assigned to a committee and can go through the hearings process, especially after the success of his last bill getting the app banned on all federal devices. “TikTok and its allies will want to play this game in private,” he adds. “They want to keep it from coming to a vote. They don’t want it to be marked up in a committee, because once you actually lay the facts out there, it’s very hard to go on the record and defend TikTok and their terrible spying practices.” If the legislation doesn’t move forward in the Senate, Hawley says he plans to demand a floor vote to make every Senator take a public position on it.
If there are hearings on the bill, they are more likely to come in the House, which is under the control of Republicans, who are more openly antagonistic toward China.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, has expressed a willingness to back the legislation. “Mr. Jordan is very concerned about TikTok, and all options should be on the table when it comes to the platform,” Russell Dye, a spokesman for Jordan, tells TIME. (The legislation would likely go through the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, according to Buck.)
Former President Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban TikTok from Apple’s and Google’s app stores in 2020 unless the business was sold to an American company. But federal courts struck down the ban. Since President Joe Biden took office, his Administration has been in negotiations with TikTok over changes to how the company accesses and stores user data, but those talks haven’t come to a resolution.
In the interim, members of Congress are ramping up the pressure to rein in one of the world’s most downloaded social media platforms—if only they can agree on how to proceed. “There are certainly arguments that it is popular,” Buck says. “There are also arguments that it’s dangerous.”