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Momentum builds in Congress to crack down on TikTok

Lawmakers from both parties have increased their scrutiny of the app, with some backing a national ban to counter China as others probe its effects on young people.
The TikTok booth at the Tokyo Game Show
The TikTok booth at the Tokyo Game Show on Sept. 17, 2022.Stanislav Kogiku / Sipa via AP file

WASHINGTON — There’s no consensus yet, but bipartisan momentum is building for Congress to do something, anything, to crack down on TikTok.

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., have proposed bills that would ban the Chinese-owned social media behemoth in the United States.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., teamed up on a letter demanding that the Biden administration impose a wall between TikTok’s U.S. operations and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance.

And in a rare one-on-one meeting this week on Capitol Hill, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said he urged TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew “to consider his platform’s harm to a generation of Americans.”

"TikTok is digital fentanyl," said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the chairman of the new House select committee on China.

Late last year, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law a sprawling spending package that included legislation that bans TikTok on millions of federal government devices.

Now lawmakers want to go further. And they're sounding the alarm that the Chinese Communist Party is using TikTok as an entry point to spy on its tens of millions of American users. The company has also come under fire as Congress takes a harder look at the harm caused by social media — especially to teenagers who have flocked to the viral video app.

The discovery of a Chinese spy balloon in U.S. airspace has only amplified the warnings. And Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco this week warned Americans not to use TikTok, citing security concerns.

“I think TikTok is a Chinese espionage tool. I think it is profoundly dangerous,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Commerce committee, said in an interview. “I think it is used to influence children and teenagers in an incredibly harmful manner, to push them toward self-destructive behavior, including self-harm, including body image issues that lead to all sorts of eating disorders, that lead to substance abuse, that can lead to teen suicide.

“I believe we need to have real scrutiny, and we need to be taking far more steps to protect against TikTok," added Cruz, who said he urged Commerce Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to hold a hearing with TikTok executives during a recent lunch.

Hawley, who led the push for the limited government device ban, said there is “forward progress” on cracking down on TikTok. In addition to rolling out a bill that would ban the downloading of TikTok on any device in the United States, he also introduced legislation this week that would ban children under 16 from creating accounts on any social media app.

“This is a company that lies for a living. They have lied to Congress repeatedly. They have lied to the American public. And now they’re on this last-minute public relations tour because they’re afraid they’re gonna get banned and they should be banned,” said Hawley, who serves on the Judiciary and Homeland Security committees. “We should ban them in the United States — that is the solution to the TikTok problem.”

In a statement to NBC News, TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter responded to the criticism: "We hope that Congress will explore solutions to their concerns about TikTok that won’t have the effect of censoring the voices of millions of Americans."

She added that the “swiftest and most thorough way" to address national security concerns is for the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CIFIUS, to sign off on a potential security agreement concerning the social media company.

"That plan includes layers of government and independent oversight to ensure that there are no backdoors into TikTok that could be used to access data or manipulate the platform," Oberwetter said. "These measures go beyond what any peer company is doing today on security."

In response to Cruz slamming TikTok as a "Chinese espionage tool," Oberwetter said: "There is no truth to Sen. Cruz’s outrageous claim that TikTok shares U.S. user data with the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. We take the safety of our community very seriously, and welcome a dialogue with Sen. Cruz and other stakeholders about how our industry can work together to support the well-being of teens and families."

Some Democrats are also bullish on a national ban on TikTok. “If it came up for a vote, I would vote for it,” Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., a member of the Commerce committee, told NBC News. 

Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, the majority whip and No. 2 Democrat, said Congress “ought to find ways to restrict TikTok's access to Americans and American agencies … in every constitutional way possible.”

Durbin said he plans to speak to Hawley about his age-restriction proposal and pledged that the Judiciary committee would mark up legislation soon that addresses the harmful effects of social media. 

“So we’re gonna pursue this. I want to put a bill in the committee for a markup. We have several very solid base bills to work off of. I will consider [Hawley’s], of course, but I think the sentiment shared by both sides of the aisle was very potent and strong in that social media businesses better get real,” Durbin said.

“We’re sick and tired of what they’re doing to our kids.”

Rubio, vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, have authored another bill targeting TikTok: The Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act, or Anti-Social CCP Act.

Specifically, the bill would block all transactions from TikTok or any other social media company that is based in or under the influence of China, Russia or any other "country of concern." Reps. Gallagher and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. — the leaders of the new select China committee — have introduced a companion bill in the House.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a member of the Commerce panel, said he’s still reviewing some of the proposed TikTok bills and is "alarmed" by the company. "But it is hard to make a law well that only targets one company,” he said.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a senior member of the Foreign Relations Committee, hasn’t taken a position on a TikTok ban but pointed out that her panel this week held a hearing on how social media apps are being used to sell fentanyl and other drugs to young people. 

“We need a comprehensive approach,” she said. “That is what I would like to do.”

Amid the calls for a congressional crackdown, Chew launched a charm offensive in Washington this week, trying to convince key lawmakers, think tanks and reporters that the app brings value to its 100 million American users and should not be outlawed.

“There are more than 100 million voices in this country, and I think it’ll be a real shame if our users around the world are not able to hear them anymore,” Chew said in an interview with The Washington Post. “We have to have tough conversations on who is using it now? What kind of value does it bring to them? What does it mean if we just, like, rip it out of their hands?”

It’s unclear if the TikTok CEO changed any minds. After huddling with Chew, Bennet said he remains “fundamentally concerned that TikTok, as a Chinese-owned company, is subject to dictates from the Chinese Communist Party and poses an unacceptable risk to U.S. national security.”

“Mr. Chew and I also discussed the poisonous influence of TikTok’s algorithms on teen mental health, and I urged him to consider his platform’s harm to a generation of Americans," added the senator, a former Denver Public Schools superintendent.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R- Miss., a vocal critic of TikTok who now is the top Republican on the Armed Services committee, also agreed to sit down with Chew this week "as a courtesy," his office confirmed.

Wicker's "views on TikTok and its threat to American interests remain completely unchanged," a Wicker spokesperson said.