Anti-TikTok pressure is bipartisan and mounting in Congress

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)
Greg Nash
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) arrives to the Capitol for votes on Tuesday, September 27, 2022 as work continues on the continuing resolution to fund the federal government.

Anti-TikTok pressure is mounting in Congress from both sides of the aisle, with lawmakers proposing legal measures to ban the popular video sharing app from use in the U.S. to requests for dominant app stores to drop it. 

The push is largely based on concerns that the app, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, poses national security and privacy risks based on the data TikTok is able to collect on users’ activity on their devices both on and off the app.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) introduced a bill last week that would ban TikTok in the U.S. It is the first of its kind to be introduced this Congress, following a similar proposal led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) last year. 

“The big problem with TikTok is that it is a backdoor for the Chinese Communist Party into the personal data and the personal lives of every American who uses it, that includes especially our kids,” Hawley told The Hill. 

Security experts have expressed similar concerns about the app.

Brandon Pugh, policy director of the cybersecurity and emerging threats team at the R Street Institute, said the app presents a privacy concern and a security threat in terms of how the data collected can be leveraged or exploited against Americans, particularly those “in sensitive positions or our most vulnerable populations like children.”

“As a general principle, China has a history of amassing large amounts of data on their own citizens and those around the world, including Americans,” Pugh said. 

“This data can reveal sensitive parts of our daily lives, including health and location information,” he added. 

Democrats shared some of these concerns, but caution that a singular focus on TikTok may miss broader issues posed by apps run by foreign adversaries and the data collected by social media apps as a whole. 

Hawley and Buck’s legislation would direct the president, by use of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, to block and prohibit transactions with TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, with penalties for entities that attempt to evade the sanctions.

It would also require the director of national intelligence to submit a report and brief Congress on what the lawmakers characterized as TikTok’s threats to national security. It said TikTok could allow China to access U.S. user data and use it for “intelligence or military purposes, including surveillance, microtargeting, deepfakes, or blackmail.”

Hawley said he is concerned that China is “vociferously attempting to gather information on as many Americans as possible” to build data files and use it to “feed their algorithms” and “who knows what else.” 

“Frankly, I don’t care to find out. I would prefer that we deny them access to Americans’ data. And I want to say, particularly — as the father of three children, I particularly despise the idea that China would be able to build files on our kids beginning at a young age by tracking them all around the internet,” he said. 

TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said TikTok’s policy “clearly states [that] we collect ‘keystroke patterns or rhythms.’ This is not the same as collecting the content of keystrokes.” That data is used to help TikTok detect spam and bots, and to assist with “debugging, troubleshooting, and monitoring for proper performance,” she said. 

“We understand that there are concerns about TikTok. That is [why] we have been working with [The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] CFIUS for over two years on a plan to address those concerns in the U.S.,” Oberwetter said in an email. 

President Biden ordered CFIUS to review TikTok in June 2021, after withdrawing executive orders issued under former President Trump to ban new downloads of the app in the U.S. Few details have emerged about the administration’s review.

“We hope that legislators who want to see these concerns addressed will encourage the Administration to conclude its national security review of TikTok so we can continue to implement this solution and provide peace of mind to our community and our stakeholders,” Oberwetter said. 

In addition to the ongoing CFIUS review, TikTok briefed members of the media this week on a plan TikTok dubbed “Project Texas” that relies on software from Austin-based company Oracle.

TikTok officials said all U.S. user traffic is routed through Oracle’s servers, NPR reported. TikTok first started its relationship with Oracle to manage data under the Trump administration, when the former president made his own push to put TikTok out of operation in the U.S. 

Oracle engineers will be able to inspect TikTok’s source code, including the algorithm that drives what videos are served to users, and a third-party monitor will inspect TikTok’s data and algorithm in case Oracle misses anything, according to NPR. 

This is the second time Hawley has introduced legislation to ban TikTok. His previous bill to prohibit the use of the app on government devices was successfully added into a government funding package at the end of last year and signed into law by President Biden. 

Separately, a number of states, including Texas, Maryland, New Jersey and Ohio, have banned the app from government devices.  

Hawley’s latest proposal faces a tough road — especially in the Democratic-controlled Senate. 

Democratic lawmakers broadly are seeking more measured steps than Hawley’s proposed ban. 

Earlier this week, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) asked the chief executive officers of Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores, warning its “vast influence and aggressive data collection pose a specific threat.” Spokespeople for Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment. 

Bennet said that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is compelled by Chinese law to comply with requests from the government for access to data from such apps, which could potentially allow the Chinese government to access and collect information on American citizens.  

Oberwetter said Bennet’s letter “relies almost exclusively on misleading reporting about TikTok, the data we collect, and our data security controls” and “ignores the considerable investment” made with Project Texas. 

In the long run, Bennet told The Hill he thinks Congress should address concerns posed by TikTok by way of adopting his proposal to create a Federal Digital Platform Commission tasked with oversight over digital platforms. 

“I don’t think we should be doing this on a one-off basis if we can avoid it. We need a coherent and comprehensive approach; that’s the way to get to that clear and comprehensive approach,” he said. 

Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) raised similar issues as Hawley about TikTok’s data collection and the possibility of TikTok being used as a potential propaganda tool. Warner said the app’s data collection is not “dissimilar to some of the collection of American companies,” but his concerns are amplified by supposed ties to China. 

“If suddenly, I’m not saying this is happening today, but a decision is made that [TikTok is] not going to show videos … that doesn’t do anything other than reinforce that Taiwan should be part of the [People’s Republic of China] forever, that would be a national security concern,” he said. 

Cyrus Walker, the founder and managing principal at cybersecurity firm Data Defenders, raised similar concerns. He said the Chinese government could use the app to influence American users to think a certain way about a particular topic or policy.

He explained that since TikTok is owned by a Chinese-based company, it’s possible that the government could use the app to spread disinformation or share videos that amplify negative views towards the U.S. or undermine American values.

“It’s a concern about how the application itself could be used as a strategic tool of China’s effort to influence American sentiment across various spectrums of society and the economy,” Walker said. 

For instance, he said the Chinese government could use specific algorithms on TikTok to increase the number of views of a video, hence allowing more users to see it.

“The algorithm could be manipulated to elevate the exposure of the video across the platform more than it normally would have gotten in its general state,” he added.

Rather than a TikTok ban, Warner is planning to introduce a proposal that would establish a comprehensive and risk-based process to review foreign-owned technology services that pose national security risks. In addition to TikTok, the proposal could target reviews of technology like the Russian-based Kaspersky antivirus software, a Warner spokesperson said. 

Walker also said he wouldn’t oppose a nationwide ban of the app, especially if the company does not completely divest itself from Chinese ownership and become a wholly-owned U.S. subsidiary or entity.

“I wouldn’t have any issue with an all-out ban simply because of the truly controlling entity behind it that will then have the capability to access our lives,” he added.

Tags CFIUS China Josh Hawley Josh Hawley Ken Buck Marco Rubio Marco Rubio Mark Warner Project Texas TikTok

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