Talks around banning TikTok have been going on since the Trump administration. Over the past five years, the federal government has taken a series of actions to alleviate concerns over spying, including a still-in-progress deal to transfer US users’ data on the social video-sharing app to an American company, and a recent Senate hearing with the company’s chief operating officer.
However, not everyone was satisfied with the requirements in the potential data-transfer agreement, and skeptics aren’t convinced by TikTok’s process for handling users’ personal information. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), the Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, stated to The New York Times earlier this year that unless the tie between TikTok and ByteDance (the Chinese company that currently owns the app) is completely severed, “significant national security issues regarding operations, data, and algorithms [will still be] unresolved.”
This week, Rubio pushed even further by introducing a bill that proposes to put a nation-wide ban on TikTok and any other apps or platforms owned by ByteDance. (The name is a mouthful: Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act.) If it passes, it would block and prohibit “all transactions from any social media company in, or under the influence of, China, Russia, and several other foreign countries of concern.” Representative Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) introduced companion legislation in the House.
TikTok, the envy of older, beleaguered apps like Facebook and YouTube, has become a de facto search engine and source of news for younger users. But it has drawn both positive and negative attention since it first launched stateside in 2016.
Critics of the recent bill note that this kind of broad ban will mostly impact more than one billion everyday users, especially those in the younger generations that have been using TikTok as a stage for political activism, social commentary, and other forms of constitutionally protected expression. Moreover, Techdirt notes that hyper-focusing on just one app ignores the bigger problem that pervades many modern technology companies (including American ones) that sell and broker data.
[Related: How data brokers threaten your privacy]
“TikTok’s security, privacy, and its relationship with the Chinese government is indeed concerning, but a total ban is not the answer,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel Kurt Opsahl tells PopSci. “A total ban is not narrowly tailored to the least restrictive means to address the security and privacy concerns, and instead lays a censorial blow against the speech of millions of ordinary Americans.” He declined to comment on whether the bill could actually pass.
Hilary McQuaide, a spokesperson for TikTok, told multiple outlets that she felt this bill was rash considering that there is an ongoing national security review by the Biden administration. “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 US,” McQuaide said to CNN.
Rubio is not the only congressperson making efforts to corral the influence of TikTok. In an attempt to deal with the larger national security concerns that have been brought up during the Intelligence Committee hearing with TikTok, on Wednesday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill introduced by Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) that would ban the download and use of the app on government-issued devices. The legislation has to go through the House and President Joe Biden’s approval before it can become law.