US lawmakers vote 50-0 to force sale of TikTok despite angry calls from users

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A large TikTok ad at a subway station.
Enlarge / TikTok ad at a Metro station in Washington, DC on March 30, 2023.

Getty Images | Bloomberg

The House Commerce Committee today voted 50-0 to approve a bill that would force TikTok owner ByteDance to sell the company or lose access to the US market.

The Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act “addresses the immediate national security risks posed by TikTok and establishes a framework for the Executive Branch to protect Americans from future foreign adversary controlled applications,” a committee memo said. “If an application is determined to be operated by a company controlled by a foreign adversary—like ByteDance, Ltd., which is controlled by the People’s Republic of China—the application must be divested from foreign adversary control within 180 days.”

If the bill passes in the House and Senate and is signed into law by President Biden, TikTok would eventually be dropped from app stores in the US if its owner doesn’t sell. It also would lose access to US-based web hosting services.

“If the application is not divested, entities in the United States would be prohibited from distributing the application through an application marketplace or store and providing web hosting services,” the committee memo said.

Chair: “CCP weaponizes applications it controls”

The bill was introduced on Tuesday and had 20 sponsors split evenly between Democrats and Republicans. TikTok urged its users to protest the bill, sending a notification that said, “Congress is planning a total ban of TikTok… Let Congress know what TikTok means to you and tell them to vote NO.”

Many users called lawmakers’ offices to complain, Congressional staffers told Politico. “It’s so so bad. Our phones have not stopped ringing. They’re teenagers and old people saying they spend their whole day on the app and we can’t take it away,” one House GOP staffer was quoted as saying.

House Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said that TikTok enlisting users to call lawmakers showed “in real time how the Chinese Communist Party can weaponize platforms like TikTok to manipulate the American people.”

“This is just a small taste of how the CCP weaponizes applications it controls to manipulate tens of millions of people to further their agenda. These applications present a clear national security threat to the United States and necessitate the decisive action we will take today,” she said before the vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the TikTok bill, saying it “would violate the First Amendment rights of hundreds of millions of Americans who use the app to communicate and express themselves daily.”

Bill sponsor: “It’s not a ban”

Bill sponsor Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) expressed anger at TikTok for telling its users that the bill would ban the app completely, pointing out that the bill would only ban the app if it isn’t sold.

“If you actually read the bill, it’s not a ban. It’s a divestiture,” Gallagher said, according to Politico. Gallagher also said his bill puts the decision “squarely in the hands of TikTok to sever their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.”

TikTok issued a statement calling the bill “an outright ban of TikTok, no matter how much the authors try to disguise it.” The House Commerce Committee responded to TikTok’s claim, calling it “yet another lie.”

While the bill text could potentially wrap in other apps in the future, it specifically lists the ByteDance-owned TikTok as a “foreign adversary controlled application.”

“It shall be unlawful for an entity to distribute, maintain, or update (or enable the distribution, maintenance, or updating of) a foreign adversary controlled application,” the bill says. An app would be allowed to stay in the US market after a divestiture if the president determines that the sale “would result in the relevant covered company no longer being controlled by a foreign adversary.”

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