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What to do about TikTok in America? Washington’s ongoing conversation about regulating the Chinese-owned company advanced on several fronts this week.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans on one House panel moved forward on a bill to grant President Biden new powers to ban the ByteDance-owned app for more than 100 million American users. And the newly-formed House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party — led by two advocates of a TikTok ban — kicked off their public work with a primetime hearing on China’s “Threat to America.”
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Biden administration made moves as well by continuing to implement a ban of the app on government devices, announcing that federal agencies had 30 days to get it done.
The efforts are likely to intensify in the coming weeks as lawmakers and company officials prepare for a high-stakes showdown when TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies in front of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23.
“Make no mistake, TikTok is a national security threat,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) said during this week's hearing on his bill to ban the app.
TikTok has spent considerable energy in recent months pushing back against the flurry of charges. Brooke Oberwetter, the company's American policy communications head, told Yahoo Finance in a statement Thursday that "a U.S. ban on TikTok is a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide."
Responding to the passage of McCaul's bill this week, Oberwetter added: "We're disappointed to see this rushed piece of legislation move forward, despite its considerable negative impact on the free speech rights of millions of Americans who use and love TikTok."
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo also weighed in on the free speech question, telling Bloomberg that she hates the app but thinks a ban would be against First Amendment principles, while adding another practical concern: “The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever.”
At least three efforts to ban the app
There are two main issues at play: One is whether TikTok, as it has pledged, can reorganize and keep the data it gathers on Americans out of the hands of the Chinese government. The second is whether there is transparency with the app's algorithm to ensure that China cannot influence the media that millions of Americans consume.
Rep. McCaul's bill would give President Biden the power to levy a ban after then-President Trump made moves in 2020 to prohibit the app but was blocked in the courts. The legislation passed McCaul’s committee this week on a party line vote of 24 to 16.
A bipartisan ban, led by Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) along with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), is also making progress on Capitol Hill. That bill would directly bar any social media company from operating in the U.S. if they are “under the influence of China, Russia, and several other foreign countries of concern.”
Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi also teamed up to lead the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, a new committee that is notable for its relatively high level of bipartisan cooperation.
Gallagher kicked off the committee's first hearing this week by saying China must be stopped from trying to create a “tech-powered dystopia.”
Yet another take on a ban is led by Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) in the form of a bill aiming to ban the app on all devices in the U.S.
Reining in TikTok without an outright ban?
In a recent Yahoo Finance Live appearance, Evercore ISI's Tobin Marcus threw some cold water on the idea of a ban, saying: “I do not think that that is going to go anywhere in Congress.” Instead, Marcus said, what to watch is an ongoing review from the government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.
That ongoing Biden administration probe is one effort policymakers are weighing to rein in the app without necessarily going as far as an outright ban.
Basically, the administration could act to limit TikTok's access to American capital. Lawmakers are also hoping that Washington can finally pass comprehensive privacy legislation — a bill that would almost surely have a significant impact on TikTok’s operations. This week, members of the House Energy and Commerce committee — the same panel that will question Chew later this month — gathered to debate the issue.
Policymakers are also looking to tie TikTok’s hands by pressuring Corporate America to cease cooperation with the company as well as enacting state-level bans on government officials' use of the app.
All of these somewhat initiatives may come to a head later this month when Chew sits before the more than 50 lawmakers for the first time.
The hearing already promises to be wide-ranging: topics will likely span TikTok’s privacy practices, its impact on children, and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party. Lawmakers on both sides are already gearing up for what could be aggressive questioning.
As for TikTok's preparations, Oberwetter added this week that "we welcome the opportunity to set the record straight about TikTok, ByteDance, and the commitments we are making to address concerns about U.S. national security."
She added: "Congress can take a more deliberative approach to the issues at hand."
Alexandra Garfinkle contributed to this story.