How Seriously Should We Take Congress’ Proposed TikTok Ban?

A key House committee just passed a bill that would give Biden the authority to ban TikTok, likening the app to a Chinese "spy balloon in your phone."

How Seriously Should We Take Congress’ Proposed TikTok Ban?
Photo:Future Publishing (Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee voted along party lines to advance a bill that would pressure President Biden to impose a national ban on TikTok. The bill—H.R. 1153, or the Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries Act—was only introduced by House Republicans on Friday, but it was fast-tracked out of supposed urgency, as Republican lawmakers claim the social platform empowers the Chinese government to surveil, gather intelligence, and meddle in U.S. policymaking. This is because TikTok is owned by a private company called ByteDance, which is based in China.

The home-country of TikTok’s parent company has been the subject of controversy for years now, and state governments including Texas have considered state-wide bans on the app in recent months. Back in December, Congress banned TikTok from government devices, and the app has been restricted from state computer networks (including at public universities) in some states as of January. To be clear, the bill has a long way to go, as it awaits a House floor vote and another in the Senate, which doesn’t seem especially likely to send the bill to Biden’s desk. From there, it would be up to the president whether to sign H.R. 1153, and then, whether to ban TikTok—an app that Biden, himself, has used, quite memorably, with the aid of the Jonas Brothers.

That said, concerns about TikTok aren’t just partisan; the FBI and Federal Communications Commission have both warned that ByteDance could share TikTok users’ data with the Chinese government. Many steps and barriers remain for the bill to reach Biden’s desk, if it makes it at all—but the fact that the House Foreign Affairs Committee expedited the legislation suggests Republicans intend to move the bill forward as quickly as possible. Still, as the bill advances, TikTok remains very much not banned, meaning all the two-minute niche drama explainers and fan-theorizing about Kylie Jenner and Selena Gomez’s eyebrow-gate are safe… for now.

Regardless, groups like the ACLU are certainly taking H.R. 1153 and the threat it may pose to free speech and civil liberties seriously. The bill would establish that the president has a right to penalize companies—including banning their products (in this case, TikTok)—if they determine that said company is transferring user data to “any foreign person” or otherwise working for or under the influence of a foreign government. If enacted, it would weaken a long-standing law known as the Berman Amendment, which, per CNN, “[prohibits] the U.S. government from restricting the free flow of ‘informational materials’ such as movies, photos, news, and eventually electronic media to and from foreign countries, even those under US sanction.”

In a letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tx.) and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), the ACLU argues that H.R. 1153 could be weaponized to punish ordinary U.S. citizens who may not be educated on what amounts to the “transfer sensitive personal data” to “any foreign person,” or what may or may not be “subject to the influence of China.”

“It would be impossible for the average person to know what the term ‘subject to the influence of China’ means, and the term is not defined in the legislation,” the letter states. “Would an entity be under the influence of China if the CEO’s sister had moved there, or married a Chinese person? Would an entity be under the influence of China if the CEO regularly travels there for leisure?” Further, the ACLU argues the bill could open the door for additional censorship and policing of foreign media that could eventually “leave U.S. residents without some of their favorite international books, movies, and artwork.”

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has taken the lead on moving a proposed TikTok ban through the House. Photo:Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

House Democrats have critiqued the bill’s writing, with Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D-Calif.) calling it “ill-conceived,” “hastily drafted,” and “precipitous.” Meeks called the bill “unvetted and dangerously overbroad.” Other members questioned why other companies operating the U.S. with roots in foreign countries aren’t being subjected to the same policing.

McCaul, in turn, defended the bill by likening TikTok to a Chinese “spy balloon in your phone.”

In any case, there could be hope for TikTok yet, if, in the worst case scenario for the company, the bill passes out of Congress. You’ll recall that back in 2020, then-President Trump announced that he would ban the app via executive action—only for him to back-track upon reaching a deal with the app, as it sought partnerships with the American companies Oracle and Walmart. The deals didn’t pan out, but CNBC reports it’s still possible for TikTok to be acquired by a U.S. company, which could protect it from being banned in the U.S. over concerns regarding international security.

Ultimately, the outsized attention and Congressional action surrounding TikTok (but not other social apps!) for its role in foreign affairs and consumer surveillance are… notable. Facebook’s algorithms have promoted the violence and bigotry that yielded genocide in Myanmar, not to mention Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election that swayed its outcome. Post-Roe, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, has turned in the text messages of a teenager who had a self-managed abortion to police, resulting in her arrest—all amid reports that the company shares abortion seekers’ data with anti-abortion groups who request it. McCaul is right that our phones are essentially “spy balloons,” but by no means is this solely because of TikTok.

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