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House Passes Bill to Force TikTok Sale From Chinese Owner or Ban the App

WorldAsiaHouse Passes Bill to Force TikTok Sale From Chinese Owner or Ban the App

The House on Wednesday passed a bill with broad bipartisan support that would force TikTok’s Chinese owner to either sell the hugely popular video app or have it banned in the United States.

The move escalates a showdown between Beijing and Washington over the control of a wide range technologies that could affect national security, free speech and the social media industry.

Republican leaders fast-tracked the bill through the House with limited debate, and it passed on a lopsided vote of 352 to 65, reflecting widespread backing for legislation that would take direct aim at China in an election year.

The action came despite TikTok’s efforts to mobilize its 170 million U.S. users against the measure, and amid the Biden administration’s push to persuade lawmakers that Chinese ownership of the platform poses grave national security risks to the United States, including the ability to meddle in elections.

The result was a bipartisan coalition behind the measure that included Republicans, who defied former President Donald J. Trump in supporting it, and Democrats, who also fell in line behind a bill that President Biden has said he would sign.

The bill faces a difficult road to passage in the Senate, where Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, has been noncommittal about bringing it to the floor for a vote and where some lawmakers have vowed to fight it. And even if it passes the Senate and becomes law, it is likely to face legal challenges.

But Wednesday’s vote was the first time a measure that could widely ban TikTok for consumers was approved by a full chamber of Congress. The app has been under threat since 2020, with lawmakers increasingly arguing that Beijing’s relationship with TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, raises national security risks. The bill is aimed at getting ByteDance to sell TikTok to non-Chinese owners within six months. The president would sign off on the sale if it resolved national security concerns. If that sale did not happen, the app would be banned.

Representative Mike Gallagher, the Wisconsin Republican who is among the lawmakers leading the bill, said on the floor before the vote that it “forces TikTok to break up with the Chinese Communist Party.”

“This is a common-sense measure to protect our national security,” he said.

Alex Haurek, a spokesman for TikTok, said in a statement that the House “process was secret and the bill was jammed through for one reason: It’s a ban.”

“We are hopeful that the Senate will consider the facts, listen to their constituents, and realize the impact on the economy — seven million small businesses — and the 170 million Americans who use our service,” he added.

On Wednesday, before the House vote, Beijing condemned the push by U.S. lawmakers and rejected the notion that TikTok was a danger to the United States. At a daily press briefing, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, accused Washington of “resorting to hegemonic moves when one could not succeed in fair competition.”

If the bill were to become law, it would likely deepen a cold war between the United States and China over the control of many important technologies, including solar panels, electric vehicles and semiconductors.

Mr. Biden has announced limitations on how U.S. financial firms can invest in Chinese companies and restricted the sale of Americans’ sensitive data like location and health information to data brokers that could sell it to China. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube are blocked in China, and Beijing said last year that it would oppose a sale of TikTok.

TikTok has said that it has gone to great lengths to protect U.S. user data and provide third-party oversight of the platform, and that no government can influence the company’s recommendation model. It has also said there is no proof that Beijing has used TikTok to obtain U.S. user data or to influence Americans’ views, two of the concerns lawmakers have cited.

In an unusually aggressive move for a technology company, TikTok urged users to call their representatives last week to protest the bill, saying, “This legislation has a predetermined outcome: a total ban of TikTok in the United States.”

TikTok has spent more than $1 billion on an extensive plan known as Project Texas that aims to handle sensitive U.S. user data separately from the rest of the company’s operations. That plan has for several years been under review by a panel known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS.

Two of the lawmakers behind the bill, Mr. Gallagher and Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat, said last week that lawmakers were acting because CFIUS “hasn’t solved the problem.”

It’s very unusual for a bill to garner broad bipartisan support but at the same time divide both parties. President Biden has said he would sign the bill into law, but top House leaders like Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, voted against the bill. Mr. Trump said he opposed the bill, but many of his most stalwart allies in the House, like Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the No. 4 Republican in the House, voted for it.

The vote came down to something of a free-for-all, with unusual alliances in support of and opposed to the bill. Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California and the former house speaker, sat in the chamber nodding along with hard-right Republicans like Representative Dan Crenshaw, Republican of Texas, as they outlined their support for the bill. At one point, she got up and crossed over to the Republican side of the aisle to confer with Representative Chip Roy, a hard-right Republican of Texas, who had vocally supported the bill on the floor.

Several Republicans and Democrats expressed their opposition to the bill based on free speech concerns and TikTok’s popularity in the United States. Some legal experts have said that if the bill were to become law, it would probably face First Amendment scrutiny in the courts.

Representative Maxwell Frost, a Democrat of Florida, said on Tuesday that “not only am I no, but I’m a hell no.” He said the legislation was an infringement of First Amendment rights. “I hear from students all the time that get their information, the truth of what has happened in this country, from content creators on TikTok.” He said he was concerned about Americans’ data, but “this bill does not fix that problem.”

There wasn’t any legislation last year in the aftermath of a fiery hearing with Shou Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, despite bipartisan support to regulate the app. But concern among lawmakers has grown even more in recent months, with many of them saying that TikTok’s content recommendations could be used for misinformation, a concern that has escalated in the United States since the Israel-Hamas war began.

“It was a lot of things in the interim, including Oct. 7, including the fact that the Osama bin Laden ‘Letter to America’ went viral on TikTok and the platform continued to show dramatic differences in content relative to other social media platforms,” Mr. Krishnamoorthi said in an interview.

There’s also a chance that even if the bill is signed and survives court challenges, it could crumble under a new administration. Mr. Trump, who tried to ban TikTok or force its sale in 2020, publicly reversed his position on the app over the past week. In a television appearance on Monday, Mr. Trump said that the app was a national security threat, but that banning it would help Facebook, a platform the former president criticized.

“There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it,” he said.

Mr. Trump’s administration had threatened to remove TikTok from American app stores if ByteDance did not sell its share in the app. ByteDance even seemed ready to sell a stake in the app to Walmart and Oracle, where executives were close to Mr. Trump.

That plan went awry in federal court. Multiple judges stopped Mr. Trump’s proposed ban from taking effect.

Mr. Biden’s administration has tried turning to a legislative solution. The White House provided “technical assistance” to Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Krishnamoorthi as they wrote their bill, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said at a briefing last week. When the bill was introduced, a National Security Council spokesman quickly called the legislation “an important and welcome step to address” the threat of technology that imperils Americans’ sensitive data.

The administration has repeatedly sent national security officials to Capitol Hill to privately make the case for the legislation and offer dire warnings on the risks of TikTok’s current ownership. The White House briefed lawmakers before the 50 to 0 committee vote last week that advanced the bill to the full House.

On Tuesday, officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Justice Department spoke with lawmakers in a classified briefing about national security concerns tied to TikTok.

Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Krishnamoorthi had previously sponsored a bill aimed at banning TikTok. The latest bill has been viewed as something of a last stand against the company for Mr. Gallagher, who recently said he would not run for a fifth term because “the framers intended citizens to serve in Congress for a season and then return to their private lives.”

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