On Tuesday, a group of twelve US senators introduced a bipartisan bill that would expand President Joe Biden’s legal authority to ban TikTok across the country. This is the latest in a series of congressional proposals that could jeopardize the future of the social media platform in the United States.
The bill called the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act does not specifically target TikTok for a ban. Instead, it seeks to provide the US government with new powers, including the ability to ban foreign producers of electronics or software that the Commerce Department deems a national security threat.
The proposed law takes a comprehensive approach to concerns that the Chinese government may coerce companies with ties to China into providing sensitive personal information or communication records of Americans. In the case of TikTok, lawmakers have expressed concerns that China’s national security laws could force ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to grant access to TikTok’s United States user data.
This week, TikTok CEO Shou Chew stated that the company has never received a request from the Chinese government to provide access to user data and would not comply with such a request. TikTok has voluntarily implemented measures to segregate US user data from the rest of its global organization, such as by storing the data on servers operated by US tech company Oracle. The company is also in talks with the Biden administration regarding a potential agreement permitting TikTok to operate under certain conditions in the United States.
TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter argued that a ban by the US government would restrict American speech and “export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide.” Nonetheless, policymakers are pushing for stronger actions against the company.
Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bill requiring the Biden administration to impose a nationwide ban on TikTok if an assessment of the platform finds potential risks to US user data – risks that multiple administration officials have already identified.
Sen. Marco Rubio is leading another bill that would prohibit transactions by social media companies based in or influenced by countries considered US foreign adversaries.
The current new bill would give the Commerce Department broad discretion to identify and address perceived risks related to technology produced by companies with ties to foreign adversaries, including China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela.
The bill specifically directs the Commerce Secretary to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate” national security risks associated with technology linked to those countries. It also empowers the Commerce Secretary to negotiate, enforce, and implement “any mitigation measure” in response.
This level of discretion would constitute a completely novel mandate given to the Secretary of Commerce rather than one derived from the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
According to Warner, the proposed legislation would encompass various technologies beyond social media, including artificial intelligence, financial technology services, quantum computing, and e-commerce. The bill’s language also prioritizes technology in areas such as satellite and mobile networks, cloud services and storage, internet infrastructure providers, home internet gear, commercial and personal drones, video games, and payment apps, among others.
The proposed legislation would mandate that the US government declassify and disclose intelligence community evidence supporting claims that a particular company or product constitutes a national security threat.
Warner states that the bill would move US policy away from a reactive approach focused on individual companies and instead establish a systematic legal framework for addressing tech-driven spying threats.
In recent years, the United States concerns about Chinese spying have primarily centered around telecommunications companies such as Huawei and ZTE, which manufacture wireless equipment for cellular networks. However, this focus has broadened to include surveillance camera manufacturers and app and software developers like TikTok.
According to Warner, the bill was developed with several US government departments, including Commerce, Defense, Justice, Treasury, intelligence officials, the Federal Communications Commission, and the White House. He stated that the proposed legislation offers a more comprehensive approach to evaluate and address threats from foreign technologies of adversarial nations rather than taking ad hoc measures against specific companies such as Huawei, ZTE, Kaspersky, and TikTok.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan praised the bill in a statement, stating that it provides a systematic framework for addressing technology-based threats to American security and safety. Sullivan further expressed confidence that the legislation will help prevent future risks from emerging.
Warner also noted that the legislation had generated significant interest among senators beyond the 12 co-sponsors and some members of both parties in the House of Representatives.