A dozen US senators unveiled bipartisan legislation Tuesday expanding President Joe Biden’s legal authority to ban TikTok nationwide, marking the latest in a string of congressional proposals threatening the social media platform’s future in the United States.
The legislation, called the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act, does not target TikTok specifically for a ban. But it aims to give the US government new powers, up to and including a ban, against foreign-linked producers of electronics or software that the Commerce Department deems to be a national security risk.
The proposed law takes a wide-ranging approach to fears that companies with ties to China could be pressured by that country’s government into handing over Americans’ sensitive personal information or communications records. In the case of TikTok, lawmakers have said China’s national security laws could force TikTok’s Chinese parent, ByteDance, to provide access to TikTok’s US user data.
TikTok CEO Shou Chew said this week the company has never received such a request from the Chinese government and would never comply with one. The company has taken voluntary steps to wall off US user data from the rest of its global organization, including by hosting that data on servers operated by the US tech giant Oracle. The company is also negotiating a possible agreement with the Biden administration that could allow TikTok to continue operating in the United States under certain conditions.
In a statement, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said a US government ban would stifle American speech and would be “a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide.”
But that has not stopped many policymakers from seeking tougher measures against the company.
Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee advanced a bill that would require the Biden administration to issue a nationwide TikTok ban if an assessment of the platform found potential risks to US user data — risks that multiple administration officials have already said exist.
Another bill led by Sen. Marco Rubio would ban transactions by social media companies based in or under the “substantial influence” of countries considered US foreign adversaries.
Tuesday’s bill, unveiled by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner and South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, is less prescriptive — granting the Commerce Department wide discretion to identify, and then to mitigate, perceived risks stemming from technology produced by companies with ties to foreign adversaries including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela.
The bill specifically directs the Secretary of Commerce to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate” national security risks associated with technology linked to those countries. It enables the Commerce Secretary to negotiate, enter into, impose and enforce “any mitigation measure” in response.
That latitude would reflect an entirely new authority granted to the Secretary of Commerce, not authority derived from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
The legislation would cover a broad range of technologies in addition to social media, Warner said, including artificial intelligence, financial technology services, quantum computing and e-commerce. The bill’s text also prioritizes technology in satellite and mobile networks, cloud services and storage, internet infrastructure providers, home internet gear, commercial and personal drones, video games and payment apps, among others.
Under the bill, the US government would also be required to declassify and share evidence gathered by the intelligence community to substantiate allegations that a given company or product poses a national security risk.
The bill would shift US policy away from an ad hoc scramble focused on individual companies, and provide the US government with a systematic legal structure for addressing tech-driven spying threats, Warner said.
In recent years, US concerns about Chinese espionage have largely focused on telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE, who produce wireless gear for cellular networks. But those have expanded to include makers of surveillance cameras and, more recently, apps and software makers such as TikTok.
“Instead of playing whack-a-mole on Huawei one day, ZTE the next, Kasperky, TikTok — we need a more comprehensive approach to evaluating and mitigating these threats posed by these foreign technologies from these adversarial nations,” said Warner, adding that the bill was crafted in consultation with the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Justice and Treasury, along with US intelligence officials, the Federal Communications Commission and the White House.
In a statement, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan endorsed the bill, calling it “a systematic framework for addressing technology-based threats to the security and safety of Americans.”
“This will help us address the threats we face today, and also prevent such risks from arising in the future,” Sullivan said.
Warner added that the legislation has “sparked a lot of interest” from other senators beyond the 12 co-sponsors and among some members of the House in both parties.