TikTok is one of the most popular apps in the world, but the fact that it’s owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, has for years bothered some lawmakers who are concerned the Chinese government could use the platform to exert its influence on American users.
The stated concerns range from data security to the spread of misinformation, prompting several proposals at the state and federal level to restrict TikTok in various ways, like prohibiting it on government phones. Attempts at banning the app for all U.S. users have not succeeded.
But recently a bipartisan group of senators brought forward a new digital security proposal, one that’s even received support from the Biden administration. Some headlines claim the bill could result in a nationwide ban on TikTok.
Could a bill recently introduced in Congress ban TikTok in the United States?
Yes, a bill in Congress could result in a ban on TikTok. The bill does not explicitly mention TikTok or provide details on how a ban would work, but it does give the government broad authority to take action against technology platforms that could be influenced by foreign adversaries.
WHAT WE FOUND
On March 7, 2023 a group of 13 senators – six Democrats and seven Republicans – introduced Senate Bill 686, calling it the “Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology Act,’’ or the ‘‘RESTRICT Act.”
The bill would give the Secretary of Commerce broad authority to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate” any “transaction” by information, technology, or communications companies that are owned or could be influenced by foreign adversaries.
It lists China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela as adversaries and says that list is subject to change.
The text of the proposal does not mention TikTok or ByteDance by name, as some prior proposals have, but its sponsors specifically mentioned TikTok in press statements when they introduced the bill.
“Today, the threat that everyone is talking about is TikTok… before TikTok, however, it was Huawei and ZTE… and before that, it was Russia’s Kaspersky Lab,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). “We need a comprehensive, risk-based approach that proactively tackles sources of potentially dangerous technology before they gain a foothold in America, so we aren’t playing Whac-A-Mole and scrambling to catch up once they’re already ubiquitous.”
The Biden administration has already endorsed the bill. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, “We urge Congress to act quickly to send it to the President’s desk,” a sentiment echoed by the Secretary of Commerce and the Department of Justice.
If it does become law, the bill does not guarantee TikTok will be banned for all users in the U.S. It would first require an investigation led by the Department of Commerce into the extent and nature of the possible threats to national security, followed by a discussion of how best to respond to those threats. In theory that could be as extreme as requiring TikTok be removed from app stores, less the companies behind the stores face penalties. But lesser measures, or no action at all, could also be taken.
An interagency board under the Biden administration has already been reviewing what threats TikTok could pose, though some lawmakers have been unsatisfied with the speed of that review.
TikTok did not respond to VERIFY’s request for further comment, but released a statement shortly after the bill was introduced that said, “We appreciate that some members of Congress remain willing to explore options for addressing national security concerns that don’t have the effect of censoring millions of Americans. 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.”
Past attempts to ban TikTok in the U.S.
Previous efforts to ban the app have either stalled or been limited to government employees.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Aug. 6, 2020 to make all transactions with ByteDance illegal. This meant no American companies could do business with TikTok, and it could have effectively required the app be removed from app stores. TikTok sued, alleging Trump didn’t have the power to issue such an order, and a judge temporarily blocked the ban from taking effect. When President Joe Biden took office, he revoked the order altogether.
In 2022, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to completely ban TikTok in the United States. It would work similarly to Trump’s order, but since it’s a bill and not an executive order, it would be less susceptible to legal challenges. The bill has not gained traction in Congress.
One anti-TikTok provision has made it through Congress and become law. A section of the massive spending package that Congress approved last year prohibits federal workers from having the app on their government devices. Several states have passed similar laws banning public employees from having TikTok on their work phones.