A committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on a bill today (Feb. 28) that encourages the president to ban TikTok, part of a wave of proposed legislation targeting the social media platform. Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok threatens U.S. national security because it could share user data with the Chinese Communist Party, according to FBI director Christopher Wray.
Former President Donald Trump first tried to execute a national ban on TikTok in 2020, and it was portrayed as an extreme solution, said Philip Napoli, a Duke professor focusing on media regulation and policy. But now, a TikTok ban “doesn’t seem like an extreme reaction anymore,” he said.
Once primarily a Republican issue, concerns about TikTok are now bipartisan and shared by governments overseas. Democrats like Michael Bennet, a Colorado Senator, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois representative, endorsed a national ban. Following the U.S. House and more than half of states prohibiting the app on government devices, Canada and the E.U. took similar actions this month.
If passed, the bill would strengthen the government’s ability to restrict the movement of information to foreign countries. In practice, this means the government could issue penalties, including a national ban, against TikTok if it knowingly transferred information to China or helped the overseas country surveil users.
Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, introduced the bill on Feb. 24. He also heads the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee voting on it today, which is likely why it moved to a vote so quickly, Napoli said.
The bill is expected to pass the committee today, where it will then move to a vote in the Republican-controlled House. The bill needs a simple majority, and it will likely pass in the House, said Napoli. It will then be voted on in the Senate. In December, the Senate unanimously voted to ban TikTok on government devices.
The bill’s text doesn’t specify how the government would actually ban the app, but it might mean regulating app stores or device manufacturers, said Napoli. India banned the app in 2020, and it did so by requiring Apple and Google to disable TikTok downloads from its app stores and demanding other internet companies block the site.
Rising tensions with China could give bipartisan support to a TikTok ban
Increased bipartisan support might stem from growing tensions with China following an American fighter jet shooting down a Chinese spy balloon that traversed the U.S. this month. Democrats might also be inclined to support the TikTok ban as more time passes from the Trump administration, said Napoli. “Some Democrats would take the stance that if Trump is for it, we are against it, but perhaps we are enough removed that that’s relaxing as it pertains to the ban,” he said.
TikTok has tried to respond to concerns about its China ownership by proposing a billion-dollar restructuring plan that offers U.S. government representatives some control over its algorithm.
“It would be unfortunate if the House Foreign Affairs Committee were to censor millions of Americans, and do so based not on actual intelligence, but on a basic misunderstanding of our corporate structure,” said Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokesperson, in an emailed statement. “TikTok Inc. is a U.S. company bound by U.S. law, and we are two years and $1.5 billion dollars deep into a project to go above and beyond existing law to secure the U.S. version of the TikTok platform,” she said.
This wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. government interfered in a Chinese company’s U.S. operations. In 2019, a U.S. committee ordered the divestment of Grindr, an LGBTQ dating app, which had been owned by a Chinese gaming company. The committee considered the Chinese ownership of Grindr to be a national security risk due to the data it collected on users. Grindr sold to San Vicente Acquisition, a U.S.-based company, in 2020.