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Wednesday, July 10, 2024 | Back issues
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TikTok in troubled waters as House seeks divestment from parent company

The lower chamber’s Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously to advance a measure that would ban the wildly popular social media platform in the U.S. unless it detatches from Chinese tech firm ByteDance.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Congress may be bitterly divided on many matters of policy, but lawmakers in the House’s commercial affairs panel were united Thursday as they voted to approve a measure threatening TikTok with a national ban.

Lawmakers have for months demanded that TikTok be legislated out of existence in the U.S., noting the social media giant is owned by China-based technology company ByteDance. Both Democrats and Republicans have raised concerns about how Americans’ user data is stored by TikTok and whether the Chinese government has access to that information.

Congress has already grilled TikTok CEO Shou Chew on these issues, raking him over the coals during a contentious hearing last year in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Now, a bill headed to the House floor seeks to hold the platform’s feet to the fire once more. The bipartisan measure, introduced by Wisconsin Representative Mike Gallagher and Illinois Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, cleared the Energy and Commerce Committee on a unanimous, 50-0 vote Thursday afternoon.

The proposed legislation would make it illegal for any company or other entity to distribute applications controlled by a “foreign adversary” within the U.S. It would also require that any entity whose applications are made illegal under the new law turn over all its user data before making its services unavailable.

Refusal to comply carries a civil penalty of $5,000, multiplied by the number of U.S. users who have accessed, used or updated an offending application, the legislation says.

Entities seeking to sidestep a U.S. ban can do so by divesting from foreign adversary control. The measure gives the White House ultimate authority to decide whether that divestiture has properly occurred.

The legislation is clearly aimed at TikTok and ByteDance — indeed, the bill directly cites both companies and any future successor entities as “foreign adversary controlled applications.”

Democrats and Republicans railed on TikTok on Thursday, urging their fellow lawmakers to rein in what they framed as the Chinese government’s influence over one of the country’s most popular social media platforms.

Beijing “weaponize[s] platforms like TikTok to manipulate the American people,” said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee. “These applications present a clear national security threat to the United States and necessitate the decisive action we will take today.”

McMorris Rodgers pointed out Thursday morning that TikTok had gone on an advocacy blitz, presenting users in some states with resources to contact their representatives and advocate against the proposed legislation. The lawmaker contended that the platform had “forced” users to call their members of Congress — in fact, the pop-up was optional.

New Jersey Representative Frank Pallone, the committee’s Democrat ranking member, also threw his support behind the proposed legislation, saying that he hoped the bill would force TikTok to divest from ByteDance rather than ban the platform outright.

“Many of these platforms are modern-day media companies,” he said, “and we have a long history of restricting our airwaves from ownership by foreign governments and individuals due to the national security concerns such arrangements pose. It is no different here.”

In addition to the bill forcing TikTok’s divestment, the committee also unanimously passed a measure blocking third party data brokers from selling U.S. user data to foreign adversary countries.

House Speaker Mike Johnson has said he backs the legislation.

In a statement Thursday morning, TikTok called the proposed divestment bill “an outright ban of TikTok, no matter how much the authors try to disguise it.”

“This legislation will trample the First Amendment rights of 170 million Americans and deprive 5 million small businesses of a platform they rely on to grow and create jobs,” the company said.

During his adversarial appearance before Congress last spring, TikTok CEO Shou Chew sought to tamp down lawmakers’ concerns about U.S. data, pointing to the platform’s ongoing Project Texas, a program that aims to wall off American TikTok user data from the rest of the world.

He also pointed out that ByteDance is not controlled by the Chinese government and that it is largely owned by a conglomerate of international investors, including several Americans.

Chew rejected the notion that TikTok would ever divest from ByteDance.

“Ownership is not at the core of addressing these concerns,” he told lawmakers at the time.

As of Thursday evening, the proposed legislation had yet to be scheduled for a vote in the full House.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Government, National, Politics, Technology

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