United States vs TikTok: Congress intensifies political battle against Chinese app

A new ban in the lower house is just the latest chapter of a longstanding dispute over whether the application threatens US national security

US Congress has banned TikTok from devices issued by the lower house.
US Congress has banned TikTok from devices issued by the lower house.Olivier Douliery (AFP)
Iker Seisdedos

On December 28, members of the US Congress and their staff were banned from using the video app TikTok on their work cellphones. “House staff are NOT allowed to download the TikTok app on any House mobile devices,” read the memo, issued by Catherine Szpindor, the chief administrative officer of the House. “TikTok is NOT allowed on House mobile devices. If you have the TikTok app on your House mobile device, you will be contacted to remove it,” added the document, which cited “a number of security risks” as the grounds for the measure.

The move comes as the US government steps up efforts to curtail the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. Last week, Congress approved a $1.7 trillion spending package that includes requirements for the Joe Biden administration to prohibit most uses of TikTok or any other app created by its owner – with exemptions for national security, law enforcement and research purposes. The president signed the bill into law on Thursday while on vacation in the Virgin Islands.

Before the spending package, at least 19 states, most governed by Republicans, had already taken action to block the app from government devices due to the same security concerns. The state of Indiana even sued TikTok, claiming the video-sharing platform misleads its users, particularly children, about the level of inappropriate content and the security of consumer information. And on December 13, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, from Florida, introduced a bipartisan bill called the Antisocial CCP Act. The name of the bill, a reverse-engineered acronym designed to target the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), stands for “Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Weeks earlier, in an opinion piece in The Washington Post signed with Congressman Mike Gallagher (Wisconsin), Rubio wrote: “The app can track cellphone users’ locations and collect internet-browsing data – even when users are visiting unrelated websites.” “That TikTok, and by extension the CCP, has the ability to survey every keystroke teenagers enter on their phones is disturbing,” the two lawmakers wrote, pointing out that China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law requires organizations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work.” The op-ed continued: “With this app, Beijing could also collect sensitive national security information from US government employees and develop profiles on millions of Americans to use for blackmail or espionage.”

The love-hate relationship between ByteDance and the United States is nothing new. Back in the summer of 2020, former US president Donald Trump issued an order to ban TikTok. But when Biden came to power, he revoked Trump’s executive order, which gave ByteDance 45 days to divest ownership of the application. This, however, was not a drastic change of course. The Biden administration continues to view TikTok with concern. Since it was founded in 2016, TikTok has had a dramatic impact on US culture. According to the Pew Research Center, it is the second-most used platform among US teens, after YouTube. There are now more than 136.5 million TikTok accounts in the US, and in 2021, the app received more visits than Google.

Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok in the final months of his presidency.
Donald Trump tried to ban TikTok in the final months of his presidency.LIONEL BONAVENTURE JIM WATSON (AFP)

But while the standoff between the US and ByteDance dates back to 2020, it has intensified as relations between Beijing and Washington have become frostier. Upon entering the White House, Biden ordered the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) – which is in charge of monitoring trade agreements with non-US companies – to investigate whether TikTok posed a threat to US national security. According to The Wall Street Journal, members of the committee are being pressured to push for the sale of TikTok as a means to address the security concerns it poses.

Following the ban on the use of TikTok on federal government devices, TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said the company was “disappointed” by the move, which she described as “a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests.” The company has repeatedly tried to downplay concerns about its handling of private data, claiming that US users’ data is not stored in China, that such information is not shared with the Chinese government, and that it is actually headquartered in the Cayman Islands – not Beijing. In a statement, Oberwetter said that the CFIUS agreement, which is still under review, would “meaningfully address any security concerns that have been raised at both the federal and state level.”

Meanwhile, TikTok is investing more to put forward the image that it is playing by the rules – even as mounting evidence proves the contrary. Last week, an internal investigation found that several ByteDance employees had accessed the data of US journalists. The Chinese tech company has had an office in Washington for years, and the amount it has spent on federal lobbying has risen from $370,000 in 2019 to $4.28 million in 2022, according to OpenSecrets, an independent group that tracks the relationship between money and power in US politics.

Cybersecurity expert Brian Grayek, who has worked with the US secret services on several investigations, believes the ban on TikTok on federal government devices does not go far enough. In an email to EL PAÍS, he pointed out that the ban will not affect relatives or spouses of House staff, nor members of the military or US intelligence. What’s more, few TikTok users are aware of the security risks of the platform, according to Grayek.

TikTok user Victoria Jameson, for example, recently encouraged her 970,000 followers to continue posting videos and not give in to the “negative energy.” She did, however, advise creators to back up their content in case the app suddenly goes offline, as happened when the short-form video site Vine came to an end in 2016.

Politicians, too, are reluctant to give up TikTok, aware that the app is one of the best ways to reach difficult-to-mobilize Gen Z voters. The White House has used high-profile influencers to spread its message on issues such as US involvement in the war in Ukraine and Biden’s initiatives to reduce inflation. The power of Twitter was also seen during John Fetterman’s run for the Senate in the November midterm elections. The Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania, who suffered a stroke during the campaign, skillfully used social media to win over voters. He has nearly 242 million followers on TikTok, and was elected to the Senate in one of the closest races of the election. His last post on TikTok was on November 13.

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