A recently-introduced Senate bill that proposes a potential TikTok ban has the blessing of the White House, as a statement indicated that the president intends to sign it if it makes it through Congress.
The RESTRICT Act does not call for an outright ban on TikTok, but would instead task federal agencies with reviewing an assortment of technologies (including the popular video sharing app) that originate from countries that pose a threat to the United States. This review could then lead to these technologies being barred from the country, and TikTok would likely be among the first on the list to be investigated.
White House support opens door to more extensive TikTok ban
TikTok is no longer welcome on the devices of federal agencies, along with many state governments. But some in Congress are calling for an even broader TikTok ban, to the point of removing it from the country entirely. While this position originated with the Trump administration, it has since found support on the other side of the political aisle.
The bill’s lead sponsors are Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD), with a mix of 10 other bipartisan supporters. Warner has said that he has spoken to House Democrats about the bill and feels that there is also significant interest in it there. Bipartisan opposition to a TikTok ban also exists, however; the most common position on the opposite side of the argument is to revive a stalled Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CIFUS) investigation into TikTok that was initiated during the final year of the Trump administration and await its final recommendation (as well as the results of negotiations on data security terms between TikTok and CIFUS) before making any moves.
The original TikTok ban that the Trump administration pushed for was fended off in court due to language in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act that creates exemptions for “informational materials” even if they come from enemies of the US. The RESTRICT Act would supercede these amendments, giving the president the power to order bans on such technology or material in cases where it is determined that they pose a threat to the country.
The technology would have to go through a review process prior to that point, however; the terms would also only apply specifically to China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela, with a Commerce Department review required to add new nations to the list. The Secretary of Commerce would be tasked with developing the evaluation process, and a broad range of existing devices and apps would then be subject to review.
Popularity of TikTok, free speech concerns give some lawmakers pause
There is a fairly broad consensus among federal agencies that handle sensitive information that TikTok poses a national security risk, given that the Chinese government essentially grants itself free access to anything sitting on servers in the country. The question of a TikTok ban for the entire country has more layers. One is simply that 100 million Americans use it, and some legislators see it as something that could make them instantly unpopular. Some believe that banning it could violate First Amendment free speech rights, a view backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mike Parkin, Senior Technical Engineer at Vulcan Cyber, believes that the ultimate focus for the general population will be on curtailing misinformation on the platform: “The only thing surprising about this legislation is that it has bipartisan support in an otherwise fractured Congress. The question is whether it will have the desired effect, and whether it’s going after the right target. TikTok gets a lot of the focus because of it’s assumed the Chinese government can access its data in spite of their parent company’s claims to the contrary, but TikTok is not the only social media platform that has had undue influence on people in the US and worldwide. The real challenge will be letting the millions of users who enjoy their daily dose of social media continue to do so while still curtailing misinformation, disinformation, undue influences, and all the other nefarious activity that can, and does, happen on these platforms. There are multiple concerns about how TikTok impacts everyday citizens that have drawn regulatory attention, not the least of which how it separates underage users from adults and targets personalized advertising to them. But from a national security standpoint, the main concern for the general US population is the ability of the Chinese government to use it as a propaganda dissemination platform. While this is mostly another theoretical scenario, parent company ByteDance has been accused of doing this with a news app called TopBuzz (which was shuttered in 2020).”
Passage of the RESTRICT Act would not guarantee a TikTok ban, as the law promises a range of actions up to a ban as the most severe and final option. TikTok’s ongoing “Project Texas” is designed primarily to address these assorted national security concerns, eventually moving all US user data to Oracle-supervised servers in the country and establishing local engineering and content moderation teams that do not interface with China. The resurgence in calls for bans is primarily due to slip-ups in this process, some of which only came to light due to internal leaks at TikTok.
If the bill passes it would also likely lead to similar scrutiny of some other technology and software manufacturers that have already seen federal government bans (such as Huawei, ZTE and Kaspersky).
Chris Vaughan, Vice President of Technical Account Management at Tanium, articulates that this looks like just an initial step in a broader long-term trend of nations more carefully scrutinizing technical imports as conflicts around the world continue to develop: “Beyond privacy implications, there is clearly an overwhelming concern with the potential for TikTok to be used for nefarious purposes, including influence campaigns against broader populations as well as the targeting of specific individuals for exploitation. As we’ve seen with previous bans of TikTok and other technology providers, as geo-political tensions rise, the sensitivity towards the potential for technology to be turned against us will continue to escalate.”