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U.S. House tries anew to force sale or ban for TikTok, a ‘spy balloon in your phone’


U.S. House tries anew to force sale or ban for TikTok, a ‘spy balloon in your phone’

Apr 18, 2024 | 5:22 pm ET
By Ashley Murray
U.S. House tries anew to force sale or ban for TikTok, a ‘spy balloon in your phone’
In this photo illustration, a mobile phone can be seen displaying the logos for Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok in front of a monitor showing the flags of the United States and China on an internet page, on Sept. 22, 2020, in Beijing, China. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — U.S. House leadership has packaged more than a dozen bipartisan bills into a so-called “sidecar” agreement meant to attract isolationist lawmakers’ support for long-stalled foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

The wide-ranging catchall, introduced as the 21st Century Peace through Strength Act, would force the split of the hugely popular app TikTok from its Chinese owner, divert frozen Russian assets to Ukraine’s reconstruction, and sanction international traffickers of deadly fentanyl.

Also among the proposals wrapped into the “sweetener” bundle are several anti-Iran measures quickly passed by the House Monday and Tuesday in reaction to Iran launching hundreds of missiles and drones toward Israel over the weekend.

A widely backed measure in the package that could potentially ban TikTok is garnering significant attention. Supporters of the measure cite national security concerns that China’s government could access user data and manipulate algorithms. The app has over 170 million users in the U.S., according to the company.

The proposal to force Chinese-owned ByteDance to sell TikTok received a bipartisan endorsement in March when it passed the House on a 352-65 vote, but has been stalled in the U.S. Senate.

This time around, House lawmakers have extended a provision that would now give TikTok 270 days, up from 180 days, to find a buyer and remain in compliance if the bill is enacted. Also tucked in the new language is the authority for the president to grant an additional one-time extension up to 90 days.

Under the provision, if TikTok does not split from its Chinese parent-company within that time frame, app stores and web hosting platforms would be committing a crime by distributing, maintaining or updating the video sharing site.

‘Spy balloon in your phone’

Rep. Michael McCaul, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on Thursday likened TikTok to having a “spy balloon in your phone,” referring to the February 2023 incident when a surveillance balloon from China drifted over the U.S. before being shot down off the coast of South Carolina.

“If you’re worried about privacy, as I know you are extremely worried about that, and if we don’t think Congress should be using TikTok, why in the world would we let our children use it or the American people?” the Texas Republican said to House Rules Committee member Rep. Thomas Massie during a Thursday hearing.

Congress banned TikTok from government-issued devices last year.

Massie said he opposed the addition of the TikTok bill into the larger national security package.

“This was not unanimously supported on the floor of the House. It’s been described as a sweetener in the bill. It doesn’t sweeten the package for me at all. It’s kind of sour if you ask me,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Massie cited concerns that the bill would grant too much power to the president and executive branch agencies in determining when an application owned by a foreign adversary has been divested.

“I’m just afraid that we are creating another authority for the executive branch where we could have withheld some discretion,” Massie said. “The president, whoever that may be, we don’t know who’s going to win the next election, whoever that may be, may abuse that authority.”

An email sent Thursday to Congress members by the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party highlighted talking points to counter criticism. The message underscored that only applications owned by specifically designated foreign adversaries would be subject under the bill, if enacted.

“Congress is the only one that can change the (foreign adversary) definition used in this bill, not the Biden administration,” read an email from Allison Aprahamian, the committee’s communications director.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Gallagher, who chairs the committee, is set to leave Congress on Friday. However, an aide said the Wisconsin Republican has the flexibility to stay and support the package through Saturday, when votes are expected.

Senate hesitation

While the bill sailed through the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce with unanimous support in March and landed on the House floor days later, the Senate has not followed with speed.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, told reporters she doesn’t want to rush through the process.

“I think it’s important to get it right,” Cantwell told reporters outside a classified briefing on TikTok on March 20.

It remains unclear if the upper chamber would let the House TikTok bill go through as part of the national security supplemental package.

A TikTok spokesperson said Thursday that the company finds it “unfortunate that the House of Representatives is using the cover of important foreign and humanitarian assistance to once again jam through a ban bill that would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans, devastate 7 million businesses, and shutter a platform that contributes $24 billion to the U.S. economy, annually.“

Other pieces of the package

Another provision gaining attention is the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity for Ukrainians Act, otherwise known as the REPO Act.

The McCaul bill introduced nearly a year ago with Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur, among other sponsors, would liquidate confiscated Russian assets into a fund for humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in Ukraine.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, of Louisiana, vowed during recess that he would attach the REPO Act to the administration’s Ukraine aid request as a way to attract skeptical conservatives who largely oppose helping the war-torn European ally.

Other bills in the package include: