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Democrats come around on TikTok ban, reflecting willingness to challenge China

Bipartisan bill could crack down on TikTok
Bipartisan bill could expand White House power to restrict TikTok and other Chinese apps 01:23

Washington — More Democrats in Congress have been vocally supportive of banning Chinese-backed TikTok in the U.S. in recent months, reflecting what experts say is an increased willingness to challenge Beijing and crack down on the massively popular video app.

The growing number of Democrats backing a TikTok ban has coincided with rising tensions with China and renewed national security concerns about the vast trove of data TikTok collects on its millions of American users, information that officials warn could be accessed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. (ByteDance, TikTok's Beijing-based parent company, has said that the company protects user data and does not share information with the Chinese government.)

The showdown over a Chinese surveillance balloon that drifted over the U.S. before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina last month only heightened calls in Congress for action against TikTok and foreign adversaries over 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 advanced a bill that would give President Biden the power to ban the app on all mobile devices in the U.S. and take aim at other foreign technologies. All Democrats on the House panel voted against that measure, citing concerns that it was overly broad and could be used to block tech from U.S. allies. 

But all Democratic senators supported a bill banning TikTok from federal devices in December. A bipartisan group of senators, led by Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia and Republican John Thune of South Dakota, recently unveiled their own bill that would allow the president to crack down on foreign apps like TikTok. Ten other senators co-sponsored the bill, including five Democrats. The White House said President Biden supported the measure, the first time he has signaled a willingness to ban TikTok.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, March 7, 2023.
Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday, March 7, 2023. Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In February, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado called on Apple and Google to immediately remove TikTok from their app stores because of national security concerns. 

"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 members of both parties have long backed taking action against Chinese technology, even if Republicans have been more outspoken in the past.

"I had a lot of closed-door sessions with Congress," Krach said. "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 range of geopolitical hot-button issues — including China's saber-rattling over Taiwan, potential 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 under Trump. 

Hannah Kelley, a research assistant at the Center for a New American Security, likewise said Democrats' willingness to speak out in favor of taking action against TikTok reflects "a convergence in the urgency and action needed to address those concerns." She pointed to frustrations over continuing negotiations between TikTok and the Treasury Department over steps the company could take to address national security concerns and continue operating 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 the risk posed by TikTok has become apparent to lawmakers over the past year, and Democrats' willingness to challenge China could be seen through the lens of the 2024 elections. 

"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. 

While support for a TikTok ban appears to be growing among many Democrats, others have said the app could avoid being cut off from the U.S. market if the company finds 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 news release with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida announcing another bipartisan bill in February.

Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, the ranking member of the House select committee on China, has also supported a ban as long as the company "remains under [Chinese Communist Party] control." The Illinois Democrat, along with committee Chairman Rep. Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, introduced legislation in February targeting the app.

But Krishnamoorthi has expressed doubts that the app would actually be banned on a national level. 

"I don't think it's going to get banned," he told "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."

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee later this month as bipartisan pressure builds to take action against the company. A spokeswoman for the company said the public debate is "divorced from the facts" and the "significant advances" it has made in implementing safeguards

"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.

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