The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would empower the Secretary of Commerce to restrict access to foreign technology products based on national security concerns, stoking anticipation of a potential TikTok ban by the Biden administration. Amid the tense climate between the U.S. and China, the bill has received bipartisan support.
The RESTRICT Act was introduced on March 7th by Senator Mark Warner (D-VA, he/him). The bill has twelve co-sponsors, both Republican and Democratic. Section 3 of the bill would give the Secretary of Commerce broad scope to review American transactions with foreign technology companies, like TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. This would authorize the Secretary to “identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, investigate, or otherwise mitigate, including by negotiating, entering into, or imposing, and enforcing any mitigation measure to address any risk arising from any covered transaction.”
In an interview with CBS, Warner expressed his concerns with TikTok, saying, “By Chinese law, that company [ByteDance] has to be willing to turn over data to the Communist Party. Or one of my bigger fears … how that channel could be used for propaganda purposes or disinformation advocated by the Communist Party.”
Some Republicans senators voiced their fears that granting the Secretary of Commerce such powers would curtail free speech. Reuters reported that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY, he/him) said the bill “would basically be a limitless authority for the president to ban speech.”
A potential TikTok ban appears to have broad support among Americans. According to a poll published by the Pew Research Center on March 31st, 50% of Americans said they would support a government TikTok ban (22% opposed, and 28% were unsure). Among Americans ages 18-29, however, Pew reported that 46% opposed banning the app and only 29% supported. Democrats must contend with how a ban could potentially affect their voter base.
TikTok has become not just a source of entertainment, but a platform for young voters and progressive activists. If the RESTRICT Act becomes law, the Department of Commerce may choose not to ban the company outright. In early March, Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo (she/her) told Bloomberg that “the politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever” if the app was banned.
With the bill still being considered in committee, its fate is unclear. Even if it is not passed, its introduction marks an increasingly wary attitude toward TikTok by the U.S. and its allies. On March 31st, NATO instituted a policy that prohibits its employees from downloading the app on the organization’s devices.