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US House passes bill that would force TikTok sale or ban it

Bloomberg
Bloomberg • 4 min read
US House passes bill that would force TikTok sale or ban it
Even if the bill becomes law, it’s expected to face a wave of legal challenges from TikTok and its supporters. Photo: Bloomberg
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The US House of Representatives passed a bill to ban TikTok in the US unless its Chinese owner sells the video-sharing app, mounting the most serious challenge yet to a service that’s used by 170 million Americans but critics call a national-security threat. 

The measure, passed Wednesday by a vote of 352 to 65, now faces a less certain future in the Senate, where Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has so far declined to endorse it, and members including Republican Rand Paul have come out against it.

President Joe Biden has said he’d sign the legislation if it passes, even though his reelection campaign recently joined TikTok and despite the risk he’d face of alienating younger voters eight months before he faces Donald Trump for an election rematch. If it becomes law, the bill will force a fresh showdown with China, whose leaders came out against a sale when Biden previously pressed TikTok’s owner ByteDance Ltd. to sell.

Even if the bill becomes law, it’s expected to face a wave of legal challenges from TikTok and its supporters. The company made a last-minute lobbying blitz on Capitol Hill before the vote, arguing that the measure would violate the First Amendment. 

“This process was secret, and the bill was jammed through for one reason: It’s a ban,” TikTok said in a statement. “We are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents and realize the impact on the economy, 7 million small businesses, and the 170 million Americans who use our service.”

House Republicans overwhelmingly supported the bill even after Trump voiced ambivalence about it earlier this week. Trump, who as president signed an executive order that sought to ban TikTok, told CNBC that outlawing it would give too much power to Meta Inc.’s Facebook, which suspended him for two years over his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol.

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Reflecting concern about alienating the social network’s core users, Trump added, “There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it.”

Beijing-Based Parent

But Trump’s stance didn’t sway many Republicans, who voted 189 to 16 in favour of the measure.

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The bill marks the most significant congressional attempt yet to restrict TikTok. The law’s proponents argue that China’s government has sway over ByteDance Ltd., the Beijing-based parent of TikTok, and uses the app as a propaganda tool. In a Senate hearing on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said there were “significant” national security concerns associated with TikTok.

Under Trump, the US government oversaw an agreement under which ByteDance would sell its American assets to a group led by American technology giant Oracle Corp. After that deal collapsed and Biden became president, TikTok agreed to a plan known as Project Texas under which Oracle would host US user data, review TikTok’s software, and appoint a government-approved oversight board. But US officials later said Project Texas didn’t go far enough, and urged ByteDance to sell. The company refused.

The House passage comes just eight days after lawmakers introduced the bill, which would prohibit US app stores such as those run by Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google from offering the platform unless ByteDance sells it within 180 days.  

The unusually speedy move delivered a blow to TikTok, which couldn’t stave off the bill despite a lobbying barrage and a campaign through notifications on the app to have its users call their representatives to argue against the measure. The company says it’s free from Chinese influence and has long insisted that it doesn’t share personal data with the Chinese government. 

“I think the full-court press last week backfired,” Representative Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said after it passed. He said the pop notification on TikTok gave lawmakers a preview of how the platform could be weaponized.

After the bill passed, Senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, who head the influential Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a joint statement that TikTok is “a platform with enormous power to influence and divide Americans.”

“We were encouraged by today’s strong bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives, and look forward to working together to get this bill passed through the Senate and signed into law,” Democrat Warner and Republican Rubio said.

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