House passes bill that could ban TikTok

Banning TikTok in the US is back on the table after the House voted Wednesday to pass a measure that would do just that unless the app separates from Chinese parent company ByteDance. The bill passed with 352 votes, needing a two-thirds majority to advance. Sixty-five members voted against it, with one voting present.

The bill still needs to clear the Senate, which is no small task. But President Joe Biden said on Friday he would sign it into law if it passes.

The House vote revives some US policymakers’ hopes for a forced divestment of TikTok, due to fears that Chinese law could compel its parent company to hand over information on US users, presenting a national security risk. The House Energy and Commerce Committee last week voted 50–0 to advance the bill, after attending an intelligence briefing about the risks of foreign adversary-controlled apps. TikTok says it doesn’t store US user information in China and has been working on a plan to further protect such data, but that’s done little to quell lawmakers’ fears.

Former President Trump is now arguing against a ban

The Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act would penalize app stores and web hosting services if they host TikTok, provided it’s still owned by a Chinese company. The legislation names ByteDance, but could also apply to other social media apps owned by companies based in a handful of foreign adversary countries.

Standing in opposition to the legislation is a group that includes TikTok users themselves, who flooded congressional offices with phone calls ahead of a committee vote thanks to a prompt in the app; free speech organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union; and former President Donald Trump, who posted on Truth Social that getting rid of TikTok would just stand to benefit Meta.

The ACLU argues the bill would effectively suppress speech, even if it doesn’t explicitly regulate content. It pointed to a federal court’s ruling in Montana blocking the state’s attempted ban of TikTok to back up its claims that the new House bill is unconstitutional.

Ahead of the vote, lawmakers argued passionately on the House floor both for and against the legislation.

Several supporters emphasized that the bill is not an all-out ban, but instead an incentive to force divestment so TikTok can separate its ties to China.

“This is not an attempt to ban TikTok. It’s an attempt to make TikTok better. Tic-tac-toe. A winner. A winner,” as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) put it.

“It takes no position at all on the content of speech, only foreign adversary control.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), who chairs the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party and introduced the legislation, emphasized that the bill could not be used against American social media companies or individual social media users. He added that “it takes no position at all on the content of speech, only foreign adversary control.”

But opponents of the bill on both sides of the aisle echoed each others’ concerns. Opponents fear the bill will be an ineffective solution to real national security concerns, while coming with unacceptable limits on free speech and expansion of governmental power.

“It’s dangerous to give the president that kind of power, to give him the power to decide what Americans can see on their phones and on their computers,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY).

“I cannot sign a blank check to some future president who would easily and dangerously weaponize this legislation to profit in silence,” said Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-CA). TikTok users who make their living on the app have complained that losing access to the app would plummet their incomes. “Creatives, artists, content creators, and businesses in my district will get caught in the crossfire of this bill and deserve better than federal overreach as a substitute for a thoughtful and incisive solution to this complicated national security challenge,” Kamlager-Dove added.

TikTok spokesperson Michael Hughes criticized the process to advance the bill as “secret” and said the bill was being “jammed through” to enact a ban. “We are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents, and realize the impact on the economy, 7 million small businesses, and the 170 million Americans who use our service,” Hughes said in a statement.

Earlier efforts to ban TikTok fizzled out

Efforts to ban TikTok heated up in March last year, when CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in the House for the first time, then slowed to an apparent standstill until recently. In 2023, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the RESTRICT Act, which put the power to ban apps that present national security risks in the hands of the secretary of commerce.

Although Chew faced bipartisan grilling, some Democrats in particular expressed reservations about an all-out ban. And despite the early push from a group of powerful lawmakers, the RESTRICT Act ultimately fizzled out amid a strong lobbying campaign by TikTok and Republican concerns about granting too much executive branch power over the private sector.

Now is a particularly tricky time to try to pass a TikTok ban, as candidates including Biden are using the app to get their messages out to young voters ahead of the 2024 US elections.

But both the Biden and Trump administrations have considered their own efforts to ban or force a sale of TikTok, despite Trump’s more recent remarks opposing such policies. Beginning in 2020, Trump issued executive orders that would effectively ban or force a sale of TikTok and other Chinese-owned apps. Those efforts faced legal roadblocks, and once Biden took office he revoked and replaced the orders with a new one, creating a framework to determine national security risks of such apps.

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