A TikTok ban is closer than it’s ever been following the Tuesday introduction of a bill that would make it easier for the Biden administration to restrict access to the popular video sharing app.
The bipartisan bill, led by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), would empower the secretary of commerce to ban foreign technologies and companies from operating in the US if they present a threat to national security. While TikTok is not explicitly named in the bill text, the measure covers companies in adversarial countries including China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela.
“Today, the threat that everyone is talking about is TikTok, and how it could enable surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party, or facilitate the spread of malign influence campaigns in the U.S. Before TikTok, however, it was Huawei and ZTE, which threatened our nation’s telecommunications networks,” Warner said in a statement Tuesday. “We need a comprehensive, risk-based approach that proactively tackles sources of potentially dangerous technology before they gain a foothold in America, so we aren’t playing Whac-A-Mole and scrambling to catch up once they’re already ubiquitous.”
The bill comes just after a separate proposal that singled out TikTok
The bill creates a formal process for government agencies to “deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate” services they deem threatening, as long as they have access to “sensitive personal data” from more than 1 million US persons. That could potentially mean forcing American companies — including app store operators like Apple and Google — to cut off relations with TikTok or similar entities. The bill also provides the secretary of commerce with a handful of lesser tools to mitigate risky transactions, like the ability to force companies to divest services.
The Warner bill comes just a few days after the House Foreign Affairs Committee pushed through a separate measure to restrict access to TikTok. The Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries Act, or DATA Act, would direct President Joe Biden to sanction or ban TikTok if the administration determined it shared US user data with individuals associated with the Chinese government.
Unlike the House bill, Warner’s Senate measure would create a framework for evaluating and punishing foreign companies that pose a risk to US security, rather than simply targeting TikTok as a company.
“We shouldn’t let any company subject to the Chinese Communist Party’s dictates collect data on a third of our population – and while TikTok is just the latest example, it won’t be the last,” Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement Tuesday. “The federal government can’t continue to address new foreign technology from adversarial nations in a one-off manner; we need a strategic, enduring mechanism to protect Americans and our national security.”
Responding to the Warner bill, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter argued that the measure was unnecessary. “The Biden Administration does not need additional authority from Congress to address national security concerns about TikTok: it can approve the deal negotiated with CFIUS over two years that it has spent the last six months reviewing,” Oberwetter said in a statement to The Verge on Tuesday.
TikTok has proposed walling off most of its US operations from ByteDance
TikTok has repeatedly denied that it stores US user data in China, a primary fear of federal officials. Despite these claims and promises to limit safety risks, the company has been stuck in negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to stay operational in the US for more than three years.
On Monday, a TikTok official presented a keynote detailing Project Texas, the company’s most substantial effort to mitigate foreign threats to US data. The proposal would wall off most of TikTok’s US operations from ByteDance, its Chinese parent company. Larry Ellison’s Oracle would play a role in auditing American data flows.
“We appreciate that some members of Congress remain willing [to] explore options for addressing national security concerns that don’t have the effect of censoring millions of Americans. 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,” Oberwetter said.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is expected to appear before Congress for a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing later this month.