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TikTok targeted once again by US politicians

By HENG WEILI in New York | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2024-03-11 10:42

FILE PHOTO: US flag and TikTok logo are seen in this illustration taken, June 2, 2023. [Photo/Agencies]

A renewed effort by US lawmakers to force the sale or ban of TikTok has generated outspoken opposition by many in the country, where 170 million people use the immensely popular social media platform.

The premise for the "Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act" is that because TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company, user data would be accessible to the Chinese government.

TikTok has repeatedly denied that it shares any user information with the government. The Beijing-based company has said that it would not turn over such information and has never been asked.

To date, the United States government has not provided any information that shows TikTok shares information with Chinese authorities, The Associated Press reported.

And in a peculiar US presidential election-year twist, President Joe Biden, whose campaign made its first TikTok post on Super Bowl Sunday in February, said he would sign a new bill to ban the app, while former president Donald Trump, Biden's presumptive opponent in the November election, does not agree with forcing a sale even though he did when he was president.

In an article Friday, The New York Times carried a headline that said: "Biden the President Wants to Curb TikTok. Biden the Candidate Embraces Its Stars".

The article said that for the State of the Union address Thursday, "dozens of social media influencers — many of them TikTok stars — were invited to the White House for a watch party".

A video posted by the Biden campaign about the North Carolina governor's election primary piled up comments asking Biden to stop a TikTok ban, the Times reported.

"Aren't you about to ban TikTok? Why did your team even make you an account?" one user posted.

In 2020, Trump attempted to ban TikTok by executive order, which was blocked by federal courts after TikTok sued.

"If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook ... will double their business," Trump posted on social media, adding that he does not want Facebook "doing better".

Billionaire hedge fund manager Jeff Yass, a Republican donor, has been calling GOP members of the House to try to halt the legislation, according to the New York Post, which reported that Yass' fund has a $33 billion stake in ByteDance. Yass reportedly visited Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida last week.

The Biden administration revoked Trump's executive order on TikTok but continued a review of the platform by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS), an intra-agency committee that reportedly threatened to ban TikTok last year if Byte Dance didn't divest. The White House acknowledged last month that the review is continuing.

On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a 50-0 vote approved a bipartisan bill that would require ByteDance to divest TikTok and other applications it owns within six months of the bill's enactment in order to avoid a nationwide ban.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican, said that he would bring the bill to the House floor for a vote next week.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said a TikTok ban "should be looked at" but did not say whether he would bring the House bill to a Senate vote.

"The government is attempting to strip 170 million Americans of their constitutional right to free expression," a TikTok spokesperson said. "This will damage millions of businesses, deny artists an audience, and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country."

Under the legislation, the platform would be prohibited from app stores — such as those on Apple and Google — as well as web-hosting services, until ByteDance divests.

But even if that were to happen, it's likely that users still could have access to the platform using virtual private networks that bypass such restrictions, said telecom analyst Roger Entner.

On Thursday, many TikTok users inundated congressional offices with calls, leading some to shut off their phones.

TikTok user "kelseywont", who has 15,900 followers and described herself as a single mother who lives in a "very small" apartment with her daughter, posted: "If the United States bans TikTok, I would be absolutely devastated. … TikTok is opening doors for me to live somewhere nicer. I make a few extra hundred dollars a month from views now that I have a little bit of a following, and I now have the ability to afford a higher rent."

Another TikTok user "baldnewsnetworks" told his 1.9 million followers that the bill as proposed "also severs multiple millions of people and their livelihoods and jobs and shops that they've started, communities that they've grown, followings that they've had. … One hundred and 70 million Americans, they don't care about you."

TikTok user Joe "Pags" Pagliarulo told his 328,000 followers: "Yes, I'm a conservative guy, but no, I don't think we should be banning TikTok. The reason why I'm here is because there are hundreds of millions of people here and they use this platform as a search engine literally."

Prominent voices also have weighed in on X, formerly Twitter.

"The lengths some in Congress will go to for more authority and control over Americans' freedom of speech never ceases to amaze me," US Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, posted on X on Friday. "The TikTok bill recently advanced by the House would endanger the 1st amendment and empower the federal govt to ban social media platforms."

Mollie Hemingway, editor-in-chief of the Federalist website, told Fox News Sunday that "members of Congress who are conservative or Republican should also care at least as much about Google, which we saw recently with its Gemini AI, which was teaching divisive and historically inaccurate information".

"Google controls nearly all of our search; it's on nearly every American's phones," she said. "And Congress doesn't seem to care as much about what Google is doing to harm America as they care so much about TikTok, and they should."

Elon Musk, the owner of X, wrote: "Sounds like there is much more to be concerned about in this bill than who owns TikTok!"

"Fear mongering over China is nothing more than a thinly-veiled pretext for the US govt & its security state to deprive American citizens of TikTok: the one social media app outside of their direct control," journalist Glenn Greenwald said on his System Update podcast.

"This new, bipartisan bill to ban it, supported by Biden, is menacing."

Greenwald earlier posted to his 2.1 million followers on X, "Banning TikTok in the US means huge numbers (of) Americans will have to use Google and FB (Facebook), which the Govt can censor."

Agencies contributed to this story.

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