Can the U.S. government regulate TikTok without banning it? The Senate is giving it a try.

By 06/15/2023
Can the U.S. government regulate TikTok without banning it? The Senate is giving it a try.

For months, we’ve been hearing about a potential TikTok ban that would prevent U.S. residents from accessing the popular video platform. As the Senate’s RESTRICT Act hunts for the support it needs to pass, a new bill is proposing a different course of action. It’s called the Protecting Americans’ Data From Foreign Surveillance Act, and it would regulate the movement of TikTok data across international borders without banning the app outright.

The bipartisan bill is co-authored by Ron Wyden (D-OR, pictured above) and Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). Though it doesn’t reference TikTok by name, it is clearly designed to apply to the ByteDance-owned app. If the PADFFSA (that’s a mouthful) is passed, specific regions (such as China) would be placed on a list. In order to move data from the U.S. to one of the listed regions, companies would have to first obtain a license. Data transfers executed by individuals would not be subject to enforcement.

Wyden’s inclusion as one of the bill’s co-authors is a big deal, since he was also one of the original writers of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. 27 years after it was first signed into law, Section 230 provides platforms like YouTube and TikTok with powerful protections. Wyden is often called to testify as both an advocate for consumers and a defender of big tech’s “safe harbor” status.


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“Massive pools of Americans’ sensitive information — everything from where we go, to what we buy and what kind of health care services we receive — are for sale to buyers in China, Russia and nearly anyone with a credit card,” Wyden said in a statement. “Our bipartisan bill would turn off the tap of data to unfriendly nations, stop TikTok from sending Americans’ personal information to China, and allow nations with strong privacy protections to strengthen their relationships.”

The introduction of a softer piece of anti-TikTok legislation could suggest that the Senate is cooling on the idea of an outright ban. That effort was recently put to the test in Montana, where Governor Greg Gianforte preempted the federal response by signing a statewide TikTok ban. Lawsuits from both TikTok and its community soon followed, and it’s unclear whether Montana will actually be able to enforce its wide-reaching mandates.

The PADFFSA also has a vast scope, but it would allow TikTok to maintain key operations in the U.S. Specifically, the bill does not interfere with TikTok’s plan to store American user data on stateside servers. That effort, dubbed Project Texas, would evade the PADFFSA as long as U.S. user data stayed out of China.

Just three months ago, when TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified in front of Congress, the idea of a TikTok ban seemed possible — and maybe even likely. Now, the app has a lifeline, but it’s still allocating resources to regions where its operations are not under threat. In Southeast Asia, where ByteDance is at the forefront of an ecommerce revolution, a multibillion-dollar investment will serve a massive audience of 325 million monthly TikTok users.

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