One of the authors of a Senate bill that would enable the federal commerce department to ban technologies with links to foreign governments has said that the Joe Biden White House is “very in favor” of the measure, but he stopped short of saying whether the president’s administration has discussed possibly prohibiting the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok in particular.
Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday morning, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said that the proposed legislation has also picked up support in his congressional chamber from 11 Democrats – of which he is one – as well as 11 Republicans.
“I think the White House is very in favor of this bill,” said Warner, chairperson of the Senate’s select committee on intelligence. Without saying whether Biden’s administration would push for these steps to be taken against TikTok, Warner added: “We [would] give the secretary of commerce the tools to ban, to force a sale.”
TikTok has drawn close congressional scrutiny because the data of users on the popular video sharing platform could be available to the government of China, the US’s rival global superpower. The Chinese firm ByteDance owns TikTok, and Warner said laws in China require the owner company to make user data accessible to the country’s ruling Communist party.
Some lawmakers have advocated for a blanket ban of TikTok, which is headquartered in San Jose. But one of the other responses from Capitol Hill has been for Warner and the Republican South Dakota senator John Thune to draft and rally support for what is known as the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Act.
Also known as the Restrict Act, the measure would authorize the Oval Office – through the commerce department – to review technologies which arrive from abroad. The commerce department could then move to ban those technologies or seek to force their sale, depending on any review’s findings.
As with all such bills, the proposal would need approval from both congressional chambers as well as the president’s signature to become law. Democrats and the independents who caucus with them have a 51-49 advantage in the Senate where the Restrict Act has drawn support from both sides of the political aisle. Republicans hold a slight numerical edge in the House of Representatives.
Warner’s remarks on Sunday came three days after TikTok’s chief executive officer, Shou Zi Chew, spent five hours publicly answering questions from members of the US House. As he testified, Chew defended TikTok’s relationship with China, saying the country’s rulers had never asked for user information and that the platform wouldn’t comply with such a request.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” Chew said during the occasionally testy session, at which he also tried to assuage concerns about how the platform affects the mental health of its youngest users.
Warner on Sunday said he was not impressed with Chew’s performance in front of lawmakers.
“While I appreciated Mr Chew’s testimony, he just couldn’t answer the basic questions,” Warner said. “At the end of the day, TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, … and by Chinese law, that company has to be willing to turn over data.”
Appearing separately on CNN’s State of the Union, Washington congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers – who is chairperson of the House’s energy and commerce committee – argued that TikTok could not be trusted despite Chew’s testimony. The Republican congresswoman called TikTok an “immediate threat” and said it deserved to get banned in the US.
Though not directly related to TikTok, US fears about Chinese government surveillance reached a fever pitch after American fighter jets shot down a China-owned spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina on 4 February. The US was later reportedly investigating whether strong winds had blown the balloon off course after it took off from China’s Hainan Island and ultimately entered US airspace.