Washington, D.C. In recent months, more Democrats in Congress have spoken out in favor of banning the Chinese-backed video app TikTok in the U.S., which experts say shows a greater willingness to stand up to Beijing and crack down on the very popular video app.
The number of Democrats who want to ban TikTok is growing at the same time that tensions with China are rising and new national security worries are being raised about the huge amount of data TikTok collects on its millions of American users, which could be accessed by the Chinese Communist Party.
ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok and is based in Beijing, has said that the company protects user data and does not give information to the Chinese government. The fight over a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the U.S. and was shot down off the coast of South Carolina last month has only made more people in Congress want to take action against TikTok and other countries that have technology that could be used to spy on Americans.
“TikTok is a modern-day Trojan horse of the [Chinese Communist Party], used to surveil and exploit Americans’ personal information,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said last month. “It’s a spy balloon in your phone.”
In February, McCaul’s committee moved forward with a bill that would give President Biden the power to ban the app on all mobile devices in the U.S. and go after other foreign technologies. All of the Democrats on the House panel voted against this bill because they thought it was too broad and could be used to stop U.S. allies from getting tech.
But in December, all Democratic senators voted for a bill that would ban TikTok from federal devices. A group of senators from both parties, led by Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican John Thune of South Dakota, recently introduced their own bill that would let the president crack down on foreign apps like TikTok. Ten other senators, including five Democrats, also backed the bill. The White House said that President Biden agreed with the measure. This is the first time he has shown that he is willing to ban TikTok.
Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, asked Apple and Google in February to remove TikTok from their app stores right away because it was a security risk. Unlike most social media platforms, TikTok poses a unique concern because Chinese law obligates ByteDance, its Beijing-based parent company, to ‘support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work.
Bennet, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote in a letter to the tech giants’ CEOs. Days after Bennet’s letter, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told ABC’s “This Week” that a TikTok ban “should be looked at.”
Keith Krach, a former undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment in the Trump administration, said that members of both parties have long supported taking action against Chinese technology, even if Republicans have been more vocal in the past.
“I had a lot of closed-door sessions with Congress”
“And honest to God, I could not tell the difference between a Democrat and a Republican when it comes to the China issue, particularly when it comes to technology.”
Rising tensions with China over a number of geopolitical hot-button issues, such as China’s saber-rattling over Taiwan, possible support for Russia in Ukraine, and the spy balloon, “galvanized bipartisan focus on this national security issue,” said Len Khodorkovsky, a former State Department official who worked for Trump.
Hannah Kelley, a research assistant at the Center for a New American Security, said that the fact that Democrats are willing to speak out in favor of taking action against TikTok shows “a convergence in the urgency and action needed to address these concerns.”
She said it was frustrating that TikTok and the Treasury Department were still talking about what steps the company could take to address national security concerns and stay in business in the U.S.
“I think a lot of that urgency comes from sort of a valid impatience with how long the [Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] process has taken and continues to take,” she said, referring to the federal regulator responsible for reviewing certain foreign investments in the U.S.
Jim Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that lawmakers have become more aware of the risk posed by TikTok over the past year, and the 2024 elections could be used to judge how willing Democrats are to take on China.
“Nobody wants to be cast as being soft on China, so that’s probably why you’re seeing a lot more support than you saw a few months ago,” Lewis said. Many Democrats seem to be getting more and more in favor of banning TikTok. However, some have said that the app could stay on the U.S. market if the company can find an American buyer.
“The company must either divest from dangerous foreign ownership, or we will take the necessary steps to protect Americans from potential foreign spying and misinformation operations,” Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine who caucuses with Democrats, said in a February news release with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to announce another bipartisan bill.
Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who is the ranking member of the House select committee on China, has also backed a ban as long as the company “remains under [Chinese Communist Party] control.” In February, the Democrat from Illinois and the Republican chairman of the committee, Rep. Mike Gallagher from Wisconsin, put forward a bill that would ban the app.
But Krishnamoorthi has said he doesn’t think the app will be banned all over the country.
“I don’t think it’s going to get banned”
“Face the Nation” in February. “All we’re saying is if TikTok is going to operate here, don’t have that user data and algorithms controlled by an adversarial regime.”
Later this month, the CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. This comes as pressure from both sides of the aisle grows to do something about the company. A spokeswoman for the company said that the public debate is “far from the facts” and that the company has made “significant progress” in putting safety measures in place.
“A U.S. ban on TikTok is a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide,” TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement.