A divided House committee on Wednesday advanced a bill that could pave the way for President Biden to ban the popular TikTok app.
“TikTok is a modern day trojan horse,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who sponsored the Deterring America's Foreign Adversaries Act (HR 1553), said at a Tuesday afternoon hearing on the bill.
He characterized TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, as a “national security threat” that allows the Chinese government to manipulate and monitor U.S. users.
“If it's too dangerous to be on our phones, as members of Congress ... it's also too dangerous to be on our children's phones,” McCaul said, referring to a directive issued late last year requiring House members and their staff to delete TikTok from government-owned mobile devices.
Democrats on the committee opposed the bill, arguing that it is inconsistent with free-speech principles.
The proposed law would “undercut American values of free speech," Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) said during the bill's markup Tuesday afternoon.
“We should not blatantly imitate the [People's Republic of China's] censorship policies,” he said.
The committee's vote comes as TikTok faces increasing scrutiny over privacy and security concerns. In recent months, dozens of states have banned the app from government devices, while state universities in Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma have blocked access on campus WiFi networks.
In the past, former President 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. 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 advanced on Wednesday would revise the International Emergency Economic Powers Act by allowing blocks on that type of information material, in some situations.
Earlier this week, the American Civil Liberties Union urged lawmakers to oppose McCaul's bill, arguing it would infringe on people's free speech rights.
The measure “would violate the First Amendment rights of millions of Americans who use TikTok to communicate, gather information, and express themselves daily,” the civil liberties group said in a letter sent to lawmakers on Monday.
“Americans have a right to use TikTok and other platforms to exchange our thoughts, ideas, and opinions with people around the country and around the world,” the organization added.
Advocacy group Fight for the Future also urged lawmakers to reject the bill.
Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, stated Tuesday that even if TikTok were banned, the Chinese government could still access data about Americans by purchasing information from data brokers.
“If policymakers want to protect Americans from surveillance, they should advocate for strong data privacy laws that prevent all companies (including TikTok!) from collecting so much sensitive data about us in the first place, rather than engaging in what amounts to xenophobic showboating that does exactly nothing to protect anyone,” Greer stated.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is expected to address some concerns about the app later this month, when he is expected to testify before a Congressional committee.