9 min read

The push to ban TikTok

Breaking down the security concerns that have some lawmakers calling for a ban of the China-owned video app.
The push to ban TikTok
(Solen Feyissa)

Good morning! It’s Thursday, March 23, 2023. The 2024 elections are 593 days away.

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Lawmakers wrestle with TikTok ban ahead of CEO testimony

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee today, his first time in front of a U.S. congressional committee.  

Chew is expected to face bipartisan criticisms of TikTok, as momentum grows in Washington to ban the popular video app over privacy concerns related to its Chinese ownership.

Many lawmakers have announced support for the bipartisan RESTRICT Act, sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD), which would empower the Commerce Secretary to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, and mitigate” technology companies owned by foreign adversaries such as China.

The White House has endorsed the bill, while the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CIFUS) — another arm of the Biden administration — has gone even further, threatening to ban TikTok in the U.S. if ByteDance, its Chinese parent company, does not sell its stakes in the app.

Under Chinese law, the government in Beijing would have to sign off on such a sale. “China will firmly oppose it,” a Commerce Ministry spokesperson said this morning, China’s first response to the U.S. threat.

The case for a ban

The fears about TikTok largely center around the security concerns of Americans forking over so much of their data to a country frequently at odds with the U.S. — and with whom the U.S. could even be at war in the coming years. A few episodes in particular have underlined those fears:

  • The revelation, via BuzzFeed, that China-based employees of ByteDance have “repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about U.S. TikTok users.”
  • The fact, confirmed by TikTok and under investigation by the Justice Department, that ByteDance employees had accessed the user data specifically of American journalists, including to determine whether they were in the same location as employees suspected of leaking information. (One of the journalists targeted was the BuzzFeed reporter who wrote the story from the previous bullet point.)
  • The news, reported this week, that more than two dozen state governments may be “inadvertently participating in a data-collection effort” for TikTok, by placing web-tracking code made by ByteDance on their official websites.

TikTok is like a “spy balloon in your phone,” House Homeland Security Committee chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) recently declared.

Beyond the privacy concerns, many lawmakers have also expressed fears that ByteDance could use the app’s popular “For You” page to serve up content to Americans that align with Chinese interests. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has called the app “a Trojan horse the Chinese Communist Party can use to influence what Americans see, hear, and ultimately think.”

Finally, there are also mental health concerns: many of you reading probably know someone more or less addicted to TikTok. (I know I do.) Plus, a non-profit study created accounts on the app to survey it for harmful content and found that it took less than three minutes for TikTok to recommend suicide-related content and then five more minutes for it to recommend content related to eating disorders.

“Every 39 seconds, TikTok recommended videos about body image and mental health to teens,” the report concluded.

How Chew will respond

In his testimony today, Chew will respond by stressing the sheer size of his app’s audience, revealing to lawmakers that more than 150 million Americans are now active TikTok users, making it the fastest-growing app in history.

A ban, he will argue in his opening statement (obtained by NBC), “hurts American small businesses, damages the country’s economy,” and “silences the voices of over 150 million Americans.”

In — what else — a TikTok video this week, Chew appealed directly to U.S. users of the app, encouraging them to tell their representatives “what you love about TikTok.” Some activists, particularly on the Democratic side, have warned about the political effects of banning TikTok, afraid that young voters might punish politicians for taking away their favored social media platform.

Just as the app has quickly wormed its away into many parts of American life, from pop culture to corporate strategy to journalism, it has also become a political powerhouse, with activists and politicians using the app to rally supporters. “The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever” with a ban, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo recently told Bloomberg.

(Not much polling exists to support or refute this hypothesis. In any case, no app remains a hegemon for long: most other social media companies have unveiled features to mimic TikTok, and other competitors would likely emerge to fill the void if TikTok is truly banned.)

Chew will also attempt to assuage lawmakers’ concerns by outlining “Project Texas,” a $1.5 billion plan to house U.S. TikTok data with the Austin-based company Oracle.

In another effort to avoid a ban, TikTok unveiled updated content standards this week, which included a new prohibiting deepfake videos of young people.

Few lawmakers have jumped to TikTok’s defense (and few are expected to during today’s hearing), but one declared himself pro-TikTok on Wednesday: Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). Standing alongside several TikTok creators at a press conference, Bowman claimed the anti-TikTok push was driven by a “red scare around China.”

“It has proven to be an incredible platform,” Bowman said in an interview with Insider, adding: “How are you going to take that away from the American people?”

The Rundown

Donald Trump was not indicted yesterday. In fact, the Manhattan grand jury investigating him did not meet, canceling a planned meeting. It is unclear if the grand jury will convene today: NBC News reports that they will, while Insider says they are “not likely” to.

  • In the classified documents probe: Trump attorney Evan Corcoran is poised to testify before a federal grand jury on Friday. In ordering Corcoran to testify, a district judge ruled that attorney-client privilege did not apply because of compelling evidence that Trump used the lawyer to commit a crime.
  • Trump appealed the order, but a panel of three Democratic-appointed appeals judges upheld it on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to solidify GOP support. At the end of last year, a Monmouth University poll showed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis leading Trump in the Republican primary. A poll out yesterday from the same firm found their positions almost exactly reversed, with Trump gaining 15% since December and DeSantis dropping 12%.

  • Other 2024 news: DeSantis is ramping up his early state travel and clarifying his comments on Ukraine (now calling Putin a “war criminal”), as he inches towards running. With stops scheduled in Iowa and New Hampshire next month, Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) also appears on the cusp of an announcement.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a quarter-point. It was the Fed’s ninth consecutive rate hike, showing that the central bank plans to continue its efforts to combat inflation despite concerns that the rate increases could plunge the country into a banking crisis. “The U.S. banking system is sound and resilient,” the Fed’s statement said.

Another Biden judicial pick struggled to answer basic legal questions at a confirmation hearing. When pressed by Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), district court nominee Kato Crews appeared not to know what a “Brady motion” is. Kennedy similarly stumped another Biden nominee in January.

  • Quick law school lesson: If a defendant files a “Brady motion,” prosecutors are required to turn over any evidence in their possession that might aid the defendant’s case. (It is named after Brady v. Maryland, a 1963 Supreme Court case. There is no relation to the Brady Act, a 1993 gun control bill, as Crews seemed to believe.)

Circling back.

In Wednesday’s newsletter, I looked at possible areas for bipartisan cooperation in the divided Congress — including on banking reform, after the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB).

Can Congress still get things done?
A look at the areas where Congress might see some bipartisan action in the near future.

Later in the day, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rick Scott (R-FL) — an intriguing cross-party pairing — introduced a bill to reform the Federal Reserve inspector general position, with SVB in mind.

Currently, the Fed board chooses its own IG. Under the Warren-Scott bill, the position would instead be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, giving it an added layer of independence. (Inspectors general investigate their own agencies for possible wrongdoing. For almost every other agency, they are outside appointees who are Senate-confirmed.)

The Federal Reserve is charged with supervising and regulating U.S. banks; Warren and Scott are among the lawmakers who believe the Fed failed to live up to that mandate with SVB, creating the need for more independent oversight.  


All times Eastern.

President Biden will host an event marking the 13th anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Later, he will travel to Ottawa, Canada, where he will greet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and remain overnight.

The Senate will continue consideration of S.316, which would repeal the 1991 and 2002 authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) against Iraq.

The chamber is scheduled to vote on an amendment by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to make all future AUMFs expire after two years. Other votes are expected, although no others have been announced.

The House will begin consideration of the Parents Bill of Rights Act, a Republican proposal that would give parents the right to speak at school board meetings and to request lists of the books available at school libraries. The bill would also require schools to post their curriculums online and to notify parents before any guest speakers address their child’s class.

Later, the House may also vote on overriding President Biden’s veto of H.J.Res. 30, which would have repealed his administration’s rule allowing retirement accounts to consider environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when investing. (A veto override requires two-thirds votes in both chambers of Congress.)

In committee: Hearings with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew (watch at 10 a.m.)... Secretary of State Antony Blinken (watch at 10 a.m.)... Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (watch at 10 a.m.)... Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen (watch at 10 a.m.)... Uyghur internment camp survivors (watch at 7 p.m.)

The Supreme Court has nothing on the docket today.

Before I go...

Here’s something fun: “A 90-Year-Old Tortoise Named Mr. Pickles Is a New Dad of Three,” according to a New York Times headline.

“It was an astounding feat, zoo officials said, not only because Mr. Pickles is 90 years old, but also because the critically endangered species rarely produces offspring,” the Times reports.

According to the newspaper, Mr. Pickles has been a resident of the Houston Zoo for 36 years; he has been partnered with his much younger paramour, 53-year-old Mrs. Pickles, since 1996.

Keeping with the theme, their three new children were given the names “Dill,” “Gherkin,” and “Jalapeño.”

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— Gabe