Federal Lawmakers Seek TikTok Ban

Citing privacy and security concerns, federal lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a bill to ban social app TikTok.

The “Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act,” also called the “ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act” -- introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Representatives Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Illinois) -- aims to block transactions in the U.S. by social-media apps under the control of China, Russia and several other countries.

“This isn’t about creative videos -- this is about an app that is collecting data on tens of millions of American children and adults every day,” Rubio stated Tuesday. “We know it’s used to manipulate feeds and influence elections.”

The proposed law comes as TikTok faces increasing scrutiny over its data practices, including reports that the company has shared data about U.S. users with China.

Rubio and Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia) recently urged the Federal Trade Commission to investigate TikTok over reports that employees in China accessed data about U.S. users of the service, and several state governors have banned use of the app on government-owned devices.

Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, a vocal critic of TikTok, has argued that it should not be allowed to operate in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Carr praised the new bill. “There is now widespread consensus in the U.S. that TikTok presents an unacceptable risk both to our national security and to the safety and privacy of millions of Americans,” he stated.

But digital rights advocates say a prohibition on TikTok could violate the First Amendment.

“There are people who are using TikTok every day, in order to express themselves to an existing community -- an audience that is interested in receiving that message,” Electronic Frontier Foundation deputy executive director Kurt Opsahl tells MediaPost. “A total ban would cut those people off from that means of communications.”

Opsahl adds that although TikTok presents “genuine security concerns,” there are ways to mitigate those concerns short of an outright ban.

“When you're looking at First Amendment concerns, you go through a balancing test, and a total ban is not going to be the least restrictive means of achieving even an important government purpose of protecting privacy and security for users,” he says.

Former President Donald Trump used the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to issue executive orders that would have blocked TikTok, but was rebuffed in court in two separate lawsuits -- one brought by TikTok, and another brought by users of the app. 

In those cases, federal judges ruled that the International Emergency Economic Powers Act limits the president's ability to block “informational material” -- including photos and news feeds -- or “personal communications.” The bill proposed on Tuesday specifies that those limits wouldn't apply to a TikTok ban. 

Last year, the Biden ordered the Commerce Department to study the threats posed by some foreign countries' data collection, and to issue recommendations to protect U.S. residents from the potential harm posed by the transfer of their sensitive data -- including personally identifiable information, health and genetic information -- to foreign adversaries.

A TikTok spokesperson stated Tuesday, “It is troubling that rather than encouraging the Administration to conclude its national security review of TikTok, some members of Congress have decided to push for a politically-motivated ban that will do nothing to advance the national security of the United States.”

The spokesperson added, “We will continue to brief members of Congress on the plans that have been developed under the oversight of our country's top national security agencies -- plans that we are well underway in implementing -- to further secure our platform in the United States."

The industry-funded policy organization Chamber of Progress hasn't taken a position on the new bill, but on Tuesday called for the app to be sold to a U.S. owner.

“There’s a problem with TikTok that lawmakers can’t ignore: the Chinese government has the final say over what content U.S. users see and how their data is used,” Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich stated. “That poses a real national security threat, especially knowing the Chinese government’s history of sharing propaganda and invading the privacy of their own citizens.”

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