Why pressure is building to ban TikTok
The pressure campaign to ban TikTok is building on all fronts in the U.S., from a threat from the administration to congressional proposals and state-led efforts.
The mounting scrutiny over the app is based on security risks lawmakers have raised over the app’s Chinese-based parent company ByteDance, and now the popular social media platform may face an ultimatum: divest from its owner or be banned in the U.S.
Get up to speed: Ban threat looms over TikTok
Last week, the Biden administration threatened to ban the social media app if ByteDance did not sell its stake to an American company — a request that is highly unlikely to happen, experts said.
TikTok’s tumultuous road in the U.S. kicked off in 2020, when former President Trump threatened to ban TikTok if it did not divest from ByteDance, citing national security concerns.
President Biden revoked Trump’s threat in June 2021 and replaced it with an order for a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency committee with the power to review certain transactions involving foreign investments in the U.S.
Few details have emerged from the review so far, and CFIUS is notoriously secretive.
TikTok has pushed back on the allegations that it poses a national security threat. Moreover, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told The Wall Street Journal a break from ByteDance wouldn’t even solve those concerns.
“Divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” Chew told the Journal. He declined to say whether his company would be open to selling the app to an American company.
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The CEO is expected to face questions about the app’s risks during a House hearing on Thursday.
Officials have raised concerns that the Chinese government could access U.S. data on users in a way that poses risks, both by gaining information on the millions of daily users in the U.S. and by potentially spreading propaganda through the app.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate panel earlier this month, during a hearing on worldwide threats, that TikTok does pose risks based on its ability to collect information on American citizens if it wanted to.
Wray said that China does not have clear lines between the public and private sector. Under Chinese laws, Wray explained, a private company such as ByteDance could be required to comply with requests from the government for access to data from TikTok.
Lindsay Gorman, a senior fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund, said a “forced sale is the right move.”
“There’s bipartisan consensus that TikTok poses a national security to the United States’ democracy. The China tech threat—today exemplified by TikTok—may be the only thing Congress agrees on,” Gorman said in a statement.
But others say a ban raises First Amendment concerns.
“To justify a ban on a social media platform, the government would have to demonstrate that the ban is necessary, and that concerns about privacy and security couldn’t be addressed in narrower ways. The government hasn’t demonstrated this,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University said in a statement.
Will it work?: Biden’s latest move against TikTok raises questions about ban, owner sale
Jaffer said he is concerned about the precedent it could set, likening it to action that is the “hallmark of authoritarian regimes.”
An outright ban on TikTok may be difficult and politically unpopular.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a prominent outspoken TikTok critic, successfully got a ban on TikTok on government devices added to a government funding bill last year, which was signed into law by Biden.
A number of U.S. states, as well as foreign governments, have taken similar action to limit TikTok on government devices.
Last week, New Zealand became the latest country to push for a TikTok ban. The Indo-Pacific nation is asking government staff to remove the social media app from devices that have access to its parliament by the end of March, CNN reported.
Hawley has proposed banning TikTok entirely. A House version of that measure was introduced by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.), but both face a slim chance of passing in the split Congress or signed by Biden.
The bill that advanced out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee faced fierce pushback from many Democrats, who accused it of being rushed and flawed.
“We should not be making judgements based upon fear, based upon speculation. Especially when we have a process in place with the CFIUS to determine what the facts are,” said ranking member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) during the markup.
“This is far too serious for us to make a decision by fear and to be wrong,” he added.
In addition to the First Amendment concerns critics have raised about limiting TikTok, some opponents have questioned targeting one specific app.
Another proposal, though, introduced in the Senate by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, may have better odds. Instead of targeting specifically targeting TikTok and, the RESTRICT Act would give the federal government more power to regulate, and ultimately ban, technology linked to foreign adversaries.
In addition to China, the bill calls for the Commerce Department to identify and mitigate risks posed by technology linked to North Korea, Iran, Russia, Cuba and Venezuela.
The bill is also supported by the White House, giving it even better odds of passing.
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