House Approves Bill to Force TikTok Sale or Face U.S. Shutdown

House Approves Bill to Force TikTok Sale or Face U.S. Shutdown

Published: March 08, 2024

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee has unanimously approved (50-0) a bill Thursday that could lead to a countrywide ban on the popular social media app TikTok.

The bill reflects ongoing anxieties among lawmakers about the national security risks posed by the Chinese ownership of the platform.

Proponents of the legislation, including House Speaker Mike Johnson, cite concerns about potential Chinese government access to user data and its possible use for intelligence gathering or disinformation campaigns.

The bill seeks to compel ByteDance, TikTok's China-based parent company, to divest ownership of the app within 165 days.

Failure to do so would result in a ban on TikTok from U.S. app stores like Apple's App Store and Google Play.

The legislation also outlines similar measures for other apps considered to be “controlled by foreign adversary companies."

Is TikTok a Threat to U.S. National Security

China, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), has intensified its control over the tech industry, with billionaire investor Bao Fan being the latest high-profile figure to vanish last month.

An official statement from his company later on stated that he is part of an ongoing investigation, which many are calling suspicious.

This follows a pattern in recent years, where influential business leaders are detained for unknown reasons.

  • Xu Ming: The 44-year-old real estate tycoon died in prison in 2015 under mysterious circumstances, just months before he was set to be released.
  • Whitney Duan: One of China's richest women disappeared in 2017 and resurfaced four years later with a warning to prevent her ex-husband from releasing a book that could expose the inner workings of China's leadership.
  • Jack Ma: The founder of Alibaba vanished from public view for three months in 2020 after openly criticizing China's financial regulators.
  • Xiao Jianhua: The Canadian-Chinese billionaire was abducted from Hong Kong in 2017 and was subsequently sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2022.

The Chinese government offers little explanation for the disappearances, and reports of it threatening families into silence and censoring online discussions have run rampant over the years.

Although TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has testified at a House hearing that ByteDance is a privately owned and independent company, these instances of disappearances show how the Chinese government can force cooperation out of business leaders.

This cooperation may just as well be divulging sensitive information or asking for TikTok to change its algorithm to gather specific data that may be construed as espionage.

Balancing Security Concerns With Free Speech Rights

The bill's passage raises critical questions about balancing national security considerations with Americans' right to free expression.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argue that the legislation could violate First Amendment protections.

“We’re deeply disappointed that our leaders are once again attempting to trade our First Amendment rights for cheap political points during an election year,” Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at the ACLU, said.

“Just because the bill sponsors claim that banning TikTok isn’t about suppressing speech, there’s no denying that it would do just that. We strongly urge legislators to vote ‘no’ on this unconstitutional bill.”

In an interview with CNN, Illinois Democrat Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi explains that the concerns about national security are warranted, as ByteDance Founder and Chairman Zhang Yiming has real connections to the CCP.

Krishnamoorthi even cites the forced sale of previously Chinese-owned dating app Grindr in 2020 as a precedent. In Grindr’s case, as well as in TikTok’s, it's not about curtailing people’s freedom of expression.

“The First Amendment does not protect espionage, does not protect the right to harm American national security. It’s the same reason why, under our laws, we prevent a certain portion of ownership of broadcast networks and certain media outlets,” Krishnamoorthi said.

“We don’t want to censor any type of content. This is not about a content-specific law. This is about how the CCP controls ByteDance,” he added.

TikTok Rallies Users Against Potential Ban

TikTok has vehemently opposed the bill, launching a campaign to mobilize its user base.

The video platform asserts that the legislation infringes on Americans' right to free expression and utilizes in-app pop-ups to warn users about the potential consequences of the bill's passage.

TikTok's call to action urges users to directly contact lawmakers and voice their disapproval of the legislation.

TikTok users in the U.S. can see this call to action when they open the app.
TikTok's 'Stop a TikTok Shutdown' campaign
in the U.S. | Source: TikTok

The campaign has resulted in a surge of calls to House offices, with some expressing confusion about the reasons behind the proposed ban.

The bill's potential impact on tech giants like Apple and Google, who would be responsible for enforcing the app store ban, has sparked concerns.

It's now up to next week's floor vote to determine if the TikTok bill will be implemented.

Its future in the Senate remains uncertain, as no companion bill has been introduced, and the Senate Commerce Committee Chair has not indicated support.

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