United States

Congress passes bill that could ban TikTok after years of false starts

Author: Editors Desk, Cristiano Lima-Strong Source: The Washington Post
April 23, 2024 at 21:43
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

Lawmakers sped the proposal, the most significant threat to the popular app’s U.S. operations, by tying it to a sprawling funding package offering aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan

Congress late Tuesday passed legislation to ban or force a sale of TikTok, delivering a historic rebuke of the video-sharing platform’s Chinese ownership after years of failed attempts to tackle the app’s alleged national security risks.


The Senate approved the measure 79 to 18 as part of a sprawling package offering aid to Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan, sending the proposal to President Biden’s desk — with the House having passed it Saturday. Biden has endorsed the foreign aid package and said he would sign the TikTok bill, meaning it is expected to soon become law.


Once signed, the provision would give TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, roughly nine months to sell the wildly popular app or face a national ban, a deadline the president could extend by 90 days.


The measure — which has broad bipartisan support — poses the most significant threat yet to the app’s operations in the United States, where it has more than 170 million users and has become an economic and cultural powerhouse. Lawmakers pushing for the restriction have cited concerns that the company’s ownership structure could allow the Chinese government to gain access to Americans’ data, claims that TikTok disputes.

TikTok is expected to challenge the measure, setting up a high-stakes and potentially lengthy legal battle that will test the company’s argument that any such law would violate the free speech rights of millions. But its frenzied efforts to derail the proposal — including nudging users to register complaints with their congressional representatives and running ads touting TikTok’s data security efforts just days out from a final vote — have failed to dissuade lawmakers.

“It is unfortunate that the House of Representatives is using the cover of important foreign and humanitarian assistance to once again jam through a ban bill that would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans,” TikTok said in a statement last week.


For half a decade, U.S. lawmakers have scrutinized the relationship between TikTok and Beijing-based ByteDance over concerns it could leave American user data vulnerable to surveillance by the Chinese government. In response, TikTok has proposed a plan dubbed Project Texas to safeguard U.S. data that would include storing that information with American tech giant Oracle. As negotiations between TikTok and the federal government languished, however, lawmakers reinvigorated legislation granting the executive branch power to restrict the platform.

“It’s been a long and winding road,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), one of the legislation’s biggest proponents in the chamber, told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Those efforts escalated last month after a bipartisan group of House lawmakers unveiled and quickly passed a stand-alone version of the TikTok divest-or-ban legislation, which gave ByteDance a shorter window to sell the platform.


Although the push appeared to spring up in a matter of days, members of Congress and Biden administration officials had been working for months to develop the latest bill and expand its support base, according to interviews with key lawmakers and half a dozen senior Capitol Hill aides, the latter of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

In March 2023, lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee hauled in TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew to testify about the company’s ties to China, a heated session in which lawmakers across the political spectrum dismissed the company’s assurances it would wall off Americans’ user data from China and take steps to prevent any foreign influence on the platform. Chew’s contentious appearance put a fresh spotlight on several proposals aimed at splintering TikTok from ByteDance.

But after even some of the most broadly supported bills faced blowback from some Democrats and Republicans, lawmakers on the House’s select committee on China went “back to the drawing board” last year to hash out a potential compromise, said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), one of the lead sponsors of the TikTok legislation that is poised to be signed into law.

Krishnamoorthi, the China select committee’s top Democrat, and Chairman Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) spent months developing a framework with leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, narrowing the scope of the bill to address concerns that prior iterations gave the government too much discretion over which apps to restrict or ban, according to two senior House Republican aides. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) played a key role in convening members from various committees that had taken aim at TikTok to build support for it behind the scenes, one of the aides said. Gallagher and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, were not available for interviews Tuesday.

Months before the bill was introduced, the lawmakers brought administration officials into the negotiations, several of the aides said, with the Justice Department offering critical input on how lawmakers could head off legal challenges from TikTok with tweaks to the bill, one of the senior Republican House aides said.

“We said we need to bring the White House and the Justice Department into the planning early so that we can understand the technical challenges associated with drawing up legislation,” Krishnamoorthi said.

House lawmakers garnered support for the bill, in part, by pairing it with legislation to prohibit foreign adversaries from buying Americans’ personal information from data brokers, an issue that has publicly flown under the radar but long prompted privacy concerns among key legislators, according to two senior House Democratic aides. That proposal, led by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), was tucked into the foreign aid package alongside the TikTok bill. If signed, the data broker bill would be one of the most notable pieces of privacy legislation passed in years by Congress, where lawmakers have failed to set nationwide rules.

Because of that legwork, House lawmakers were able to swiftly advance the legislation through committee and pass it on the floor less than a week after introducing it last month, several aides said.

“The fire looked like it had been put out, but the embers were still just exceptionally hot,” said Brendan Carr, a Republican at the Federal Communications Commission who has been a vocal TikTok critic and has closely allied with lawmakers targeting the company.

After the House cleared the stand-alone bill, many senators initially expressed reservation about following suit in rapid succession. That included Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who floated holding hearings on the topic before taking action.

But after congressional leaders updated the bill to give ByteDance more time to divest from TikTok, support grew in the Senate. Cantwell, one of several Democrats who publicly raised the issue, said during a floor speech Tuesday that the new time frame would give ByteDance “ample time to allow potential investors to come forward” with a bid to buy the app. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Cantwell’s Republican counterpart on the Commerce Committee, on Tuesday called the TikTok provision “incredibly important for our national security.”

Even so, a collection of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans in both chambers have continued to oppose the legislation over concerns that it gives the federal government too much power to restrict businesses or that it curtails speech online, including Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Markey spoke “in defense of TikTok’s users” on the Senate floor Tuesday, warning that the bill would “likely result in the blocking of the most popular application among young people in this country.” Markey argued that the chances of the company divesting from ByteDance in a year were “very small.”

Paul, who has blocked some past efforts to target the app, wrote in an op-ed last week that the bill “would violate the First Amendment rights” of TikTok users and “give the government the power to force the sale of other companies.”

Ultimately, lawmakers were able to sidestep a potentially lengthy and contentious debate in the Senate by tying the legislation to passing foreign aid, a cause that already had significant bipartisan backing.

“If you’d asked me six months ago, three months ago whether I could have predicted this would’ve been the path, I could have never,” Warner said. “Sometimes the sausage-making actually works.”

You did not use the site, Click here to remain logged. Timeout: 60 second