As the U.S. government continues to consider a full-scale TikTok ban, the House of Representatives has put the ball in President Biden‘s court. The lower body of Congress has approved a bill that, if enacted, would lead to bans on apps that are considered security risks.
A vote along party lines
The bill’s approval came from the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Republican Representative Michael McCaul. Despite opposition from Democratic committee members, McCaul’s majority was able to pass the anti-TikTok measure by an eight-vote margin.
“TikTok is a national security threat…It is time to act,” said McCaul, who sponsored the original bill. “Anyone with TikTok downloaded on their device has given the [Communist Party of China] a backdoor to all their personal information. It’s a spy balloon into their phone.”
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Republican-led efforts to ban TikTok intensified in recent months after multiple reports suggested that the app has tracked Americans via their user data. The first wave of TikTok bans, enacted by state governors, barred government employees from installing the app on public devices. Foreign leaders cheered those actions and eventually passed similar mandates.
McCaul’s bill would take the ban one step further by preventing American citizens from using any apps that could potentially transfer sensitive data to Chinese entities. Opponents of the bill have criticized its far-reaching nature. The ACLU described the proposed TikTok ban as “a serious violation of our First Amendment rights.”
The President can now pass a TikTok ban, but…
…neither he nor his reps have indicated whether he plans to exercise the authority Congress has granted him. As he mulls his decision, he is also facing pressure from TikTok itself, which is hoping to cut a security deal that would solidify its Stateside operations. A TikTok spokesperson described McCaul’s bill as “a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion people who use our service worldwide.”
Though the app has initiated a charm offensive in hopes of swaying skeptical lawmakers, few outside sources have spoken out about the potential pitfalls of a TikTok ban — until now. As the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted on the bill, Gizmodo published a report regarding other apps that access TikTok’s software developer kits (SDKs). More than 28,000 apps use those SDKs, sending data to TikTok in the process.
It’s unfeasible to eradicate all TikTok data from U.S. devices, and the Gizmodo report invites a question: Do U.S. politicians understand social media well enough to enforce a nationwide TikTok ban? The ongoing Supreme Court case Gonzalez v. Google is showing that D.C. power players lack basic knowledge about the operations of tech platforms. Do we really want those people to tell us which apps we’re allowed to install?
Biden can be the President who saved TikTok
Because of its ongoing security issues, the ByteDance-owned app has become an easy punching bag in the political world. On the contrary, the Biden Administration seems to dig TikTok and its community, and that fondness could be crucial for the app as it hopes to avoid a wholesale ban.
Consider, for example, that the White House hosted a briefing for TikTok stars when Russia invaded Ukraine last March. Shortly thereafter, Biden appeared in short-form videos, and it looked as if TikTok would become an integral part of his reelection strategy.
Given the current climate surrounding TikTok, Biden’s affinity for the app feels like it came from another era — but his ability to see short-form video as a marketing tool complicates proposed app bans. His predecessor in the White House would have jumped at the opportunity to eradicate TikTok, but Biden might be more interested in rescuing it. If he does, millions of young people will sing his praises ahead of a contentious election season.
One thing’s for sure: March will be a pivotal month for TikTok’s American operations. The app’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, is due to appear at a Congressional hearing on the 23rd. By the time April comes around, we should have a better idea of whether a TikTok ban is a real possibility. My guess is that President Biden won’t go for it.