Updated Mar 11, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Why Congress wants to keep you off TikTok

TikTok's logo in Doha, Qatar, in February 2024.

TikTok's logo in Doha, Qatar, in February 2024. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile for Web Summit Qatar via Getty Images

Congress is moving forward with legislation to force China's ByteDance to divest from TikTok or else the popular video-sharing platform will be banned from app stores in the U.S.

Why it matters: For years, U.S. officials wanted to take action against TikTok over alleged national security concerns about the Chinese government's access to user data.

Catch up quick: A House committee voted unanimously last week to advance bipartisan legislation that would force ByteDance to divest its TikTok app ownership within 165 days.

  • The legislation is set for a House floor vote this week, and President Biden has promised to sign it if it passes the Senate.
  • On Sunday, some lawmakers were undecided on the legislation after being inundated with calls from constituents angry about a possible ban.
  • The Chinese government has said it will oppose any attempt to force ByteDance to sell its stake in the U.S. version of TikTok.

Context: The FBI has repeatedly warned that the Chinese government, through its alleged relationship with ByteDance, may be able "to control" software on millions of devices in the U.S. or could conduct influence operations on TikTok.

  • The concern stems from the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds massive sway over private corporations in China and in the past has punished executives and companies for not toeing the party line.
  • Chinese law also requires companies to store data and grants the government wide-ranging rights to check such data. Former ByteDance officials have said the CCP has access to the company's data, including data stored in the U.S.

State of play: The U.S. intelligence community warned in its annual threat assessment released Monday that "China is demonstrating a higher degree of sophistication in its influence activity."

  • The assessment states: "TikTok accounts run by a PRC propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022."

The other side: TikTok has denied accusations that the Chinese Communist Party controls it and has said forcing ByteDance to divest from TikTok would not resolve the U.S.' national security concerns.

  • To head off a ban planned via a Trump executive order in 2020, the company agreed to protect U.S. data through an alliance with Oracle, which firewalls the data from overseas access.
  • "We regularly take action against deceptive behavior, including covert influence networks throughout the world, and have been transparent in reporting them publicly," a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement Monday.
  • "TikTok has protected our platform through more than 150 elections globally and is continuing to work with electoral commissions, experts, and fact-checkers to safeguard our community during this historic election year."

Of note: TikTok has retained its popularity among U.S. users even though almost half of those surveyed in a 2023 study said they believed the app poses a national security threat.

Zoom out: The platform has already been banned from federal devices as well as those belonging to several state governments.

Reality check: While members of Congress have been overwhelmingly concerned about how TikTok manages user data, they have yet to pass a comprehensive national data privacy law that would govern how all companies can process, store and share user data.

  • Around a dozen states have passed a patchwork of such laws, but in doing so have created compliance risks for companies with multistate operations.

Go deeper: Americans flock to TikTok for news

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from a TikTok spokesperson.

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