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The TikTok CEO’s Face-Off With Congress Is Doomed

March has been brutal for TikTok. Last week, the UK joined the US, Canada, and Belgium in banning TikTok on government devices. And FBI director Christopher Wray warned lawmakers that misinformation spread through the app can “divide Americans.” At the start of the month, Senate intelligence chair Mark Warner unveiled a new measure, the Restrict Act, which would enable the US commerce secretary to ban TikTok and any other tech from six “hostile” nations that the US intelligence community deems a national security threat.

The White House supports Warner’s bill, and the multi-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States told TikTok it would be banned unless it’s completely divested from ByteDance. Lawmakers in both parties welcomed that announcement. “It’s a step toward banning them,” says senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican.

While many lawmakers embraced White House pressure, they aren’t sitting on the sidelines as they did when former president Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok through executive orders, which the courts ultimately shot down.

“I think it’s absolutely a good first step. I’m not sure it’s going to get us everywhere we want to be,” says senator John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat. “I don’t think we want to have a Chinese-owned company to have that kind of access to not just our kids, our culture.”

It’s not just espionage that worries lawmakers, who argue the app has a vulnerable captive audience among young people in the US. TikTok recently unveiled new efforts to limit users’ exposure to the app, including an hour-per-day time limit for children under 18, but it fails to address lawmaker’s concerns. “I’m not sure TikTok is a healthy ingredient to add to our children’s psychological diet,” Hickenlooper says.

TikTok did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

More than half of states prohibit TikTok’s use on government devices, and it’s banned by dozens of public schools, from grade schools to some of the nation’s largest universities. Tennessee attorney general Jonathan Skrmetti is leading an investigation on behalf of 46 states into whether the app is detrimental to children’s mental health. The US Department of Justice, meanwhile, is investigating reports that TikTok staffers spied on US journalists.

In short, Chew faces a daunting assignment given the hostility that awaits him at 10 am ET tomorrow. 

The debate at the Capitol is now over how to punish TikTok, not whether to punish TikTok. After supporting the Senate’s unanimous consent agreement to ban the app on government devices in December, senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the few lawmakers opposed to an outright ban. “I’m against banning TikTok. I think it violates the First Amendment. I think it also violates the prohibition on bills of attainder where one company is targeted by government,” Paul says. 

Other lawmakers dismiss claims that a TikTok ban would be unconstitutional. “We’re not regulating the speech of the company, we’re regulating the way it uses its data and its ownership on how it creates a national security vulnerability,” says Marco Rubio, the Senate Intelligence Committee vice chair and Florida Republican. 

With the Senate in Democrats’ hands and the House controlled by Republicans, TikTok is one of the few areas where the two chambers seem to agree. 

“TikTok in its current construct is unacceptable,” says senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. “I’d like to come up with a construct that people could enjoy the service, like 100 million people do, and not empower communist China. That’s my preferred outcome.”  

With broader data privacy measures stalled in Congress and antitrust measures shelved by the new House Republican majority, TikTok has become the Big Tech bogeyman for both parties. And both parties seem fine with that—at least for now. “The reason why this is a good place to start is because we’re all agreed,” Krishnamoorthi says. “You may disagree about which American companies handle our data best, but nobody disagrees that the Chinese Communist Party should not have access to our private data.”

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