US House votes through bill to ban TikTok

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The US House of Representatives has voted overwhelmingly to approve a bill that would ban app stores from distributing TikTok if its Chinese owner does not divest ownership of the video-sharing platform.

Republicans and Democrats came together in a 352-65 vote to back the bill, which also has the support of President Joe Biden, but is opposed by Donald Trump.

US security and intelligence officials have in recent days held classified briefings for lawmakers to stress what they say are the national security risks of allowing ByteDance, a Chinese company, to own TikTok.

Lawmakers largely ignored an intense lobbying campaign by TikTok, which used its own app to urge users to call members of Congress to oppose the measure. 197 Republicans also backed the bill even after Trump, a former critic of TikTok, changed his position to oppose the measure.

The White House and many lawmakers have pushed back against claims by TikTok that they are trying to “ban” the app and stressed that they are happy for the platform to remain as long as it has no Chinese ownership.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday said the key issue involved was a question of “ownership”.

“Do we want TikTok as a platform to be owned by an American company or owned by China? Do we want the data from TikTok, children’s data, adults’ data . . . staying here in America or going to China?” Sullivan said. “That is the fundamental question at issue here and the president is clear where he stands on that fundamental issue.”

The House vote paves the way for the Senate to consider the bill, or craft its own measure to tackle TikTok. A previous Senate effort to address the issue failed to gain traction because some lawmakers thought it gave the administration overly broad authorities in relation to many kinds of apps.

But the large vote in the House to compel ByteDance to divest TikTok is likely to raise the pressure on senators to seriously consider the measure.

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader and China hawk, on Tuesday said he would see how the House voted before deciding how to proceed in the Senate where individual members have more power to obstruct or slow down legislation than in the House.

“Let’s see what the House does. I’ll have to consult and intend to consult with my relevant committee chairmen to see what their views would be,” Schumer said.

Proponents of the bill will face opposition from Rand Paul, the libertarian Kentucky Republican senator who has expressed concern about the implications for free speech. TikTok has urged its supporters to make the same case to Congress, arguing that the rights of the 170mn Americans who have downloaded the video app are in jeopardy.

Maria Cantwell, the Democratic chair of the Senate commerce committee who is critical because her panel would have jurisdiction of the bill if it proceeds via regular process, said she was “very concerned” about adversaries exploiting Americans’ data or attempting to build backdoors in information communication technology.

“These are national security threats and it is good members in both chambers are taking them seriously. I will be talking to my Senate and House colleagues to try to find a path forward that is constitutional and protects civil liberties,” Cantwell said.

The bill gives ByteDance 180 days to divest TikTok to prevent it from being banned from app stores. It was introduced by the Republican head of the House China committee Mike Gallagher and his Democratic counterpart Raja Krishnamoorthi. The House energy and commerce committee last week passed it in an unanimous 50-0 vote.

In a letter to Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi on Monday, TikTok’s top lobbyist Michael Beckerman said the bill was being rushed through Congress at “unprecedented speed” and posed “serious constitutional concerns”. He also rejected arguments that TikTok was indirectly controlled by the Chinese government through ByteDance.

US officials worry that ByteDance would be unable to refuse a request from Beijing to hand over Americans’ user data because of a Chinese national security law that requires companies to provide information on demand. 

Testifying before Congress on Monday, FBI director Christopher Wray said he agreed with the view that ByteDance would have to hand over the data that made TikTok’s algorithm so successful if so ordered by Beijing.

 

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