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House panel votes for TikTok divestiture, curtailed data brokering

Classified briefing with intelligence and law enforcement officials led panel to fast track TikTok bill

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., is seen outside the Capitol on Feb. 29. He sponsored the TikTok bill approved on Thursday.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., is seen outside the Capitol on Feb. 29. He sponsored the TikTok bill approved on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday unanimously advanced a measure that would require Chinese-owned ByteDance Ltd. to divest its U.S. subsidiary that operates the popular TikTok app within six months or face a nationwide ban.

The measure was introduced about 48 hours before the 50-0 vote, an extremely compressed timeline following lawmakers’ classified briefing last week with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials that led the committee to fast track the measure.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Thursday that TikTok and its CEO, Shou Zi Chew, had lied to Congress about the U.S. company’s ties to its Chinese parent ByteDance and “the level of access CCP has to our data,” referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

Beijing is using its access to Americans’ data “for nefarious purposes,” Rodgers said in remarks before the bill’s markup.

The panel adjourned for another classified briefing ahead of the vote.

The committee also advanced, 50-0, another measure introduced by Rodgers and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., the ranking member, that would prohibit data brokers from selling location and health information on Americans to foreign adversaries.

Rodgers said TikTok’s location and other trackers are embedded in sites across the web that are capable of gathering data on people even if they have never used TikTok. She said ByteDance is under a Justice Department investigation for using the app to conduct surveillance on journalists who reported on the company’s data collection practices.

If the TikTok bill becomes law, it would mark the culmination of more than four years of efforts that began in the Trump administration targeting Chinese ownership of TikTok.

TikTok parent company ByteDance in 2020 agreed to store the data of American users within the U.S. in a deal involving Oracle Corp. and Walmart Inc., which together would own 20 percent of the U.S. entity.

But lawmakers have not been satisfied with that arrangement or promises of data security.

Before the markup, Pallone said lawmakers had been briefed by “intelligence community and national security experts about the threats caused by foreign adversary control of communications applications and their ability to easily purchase Americans’ data from data brokers.”

He added that lawmakers also were briefed “about the constitutional issues implicated when legislation identifies a particular company or application for further scrutiny, particularly when it involves speech and association.”

Apps like TikTok are “modern-day media companies, and we have a long history of restricting our airwaves from ownership by foreign governments and individuals, due to the national security concerns such arrangements pose,” Pallone said. “It is no different here, and I take the concerns raised by the intelligence community very seriously.”

Presidential authorities

The TikTok measure would give the president the authority to deny other social media apps owned and operated by foreign adversaries access to U.S. users unless they sever ties to their foreign owners. Such restrictions would apply to any app with more than 1 million annual users. TikTok has about 170 million American users.

Backers of the measure have repeatedly said that the goal of the legislation is not to ban the app but to force ByteDance to divest it.

“Through this bill we want to ensure divestment not censorship,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who introduced the measure along with Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., at a news conference on Wednesday. “If an entity other than a CCP controlled entity owns TikTok, Americans can still share whatever content they like” on the app.

Gallagher is chairman of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party and Krishnamoorthi is the top Democrat on that committee. The measure has the bipartisan backing of 18 other lawmakers.

White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Wednesday that the administration had worked with lawmakers to develop the legislation and that President Joe Biden would sign it into law when it reaches his desk.

Jean-Pierre said that the administration views the issue as a national security measure intended to ensure that key communication tools aren’t in the “hands of those who may do us harm.”

When asked about the Biden campaign’s use of TikTok to reach young voters given the potential risk posed by the app, Jean-Pierre said the campaign had chosen to use the app and “I would let them speak to that.”

Rodgers said that other ByteDance owned apps, including Lemon8 and CapCut, also are subject to Beijing’s influence and the measure aimed at TikTok also applies to other foreign-owned apps from targeting and surveilling Americans.

Lemon8 is marketed as social media that features photos and videos of food, travel, beauty and other lifestyle topics. CapCut is an editing software for short-form videos.

The measure to prohibit data brokers from selling health and location information of Americans to foreign buyers comes on the heels of Biden’s executive order last week that aims to stop sensitive personal data from falling into the hands of China, Russia and other “countries of concern.”

[Related: Biden cracks down on personal data sales to China, Russia]

The measure would give the Federal Trade Commission enforcement authority, including the power to seek civil penalties of more than $50,000 for each violation, Pallone said.

Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., offered and then withdrew an amendment that would have prevented data brokers from collecting sensitive data on Americans in the first place. Trahan said data brokers could easily overcome the prohibition on selling Americans’ data to adversaries by selling to a middleman overseas who could then sell the same data to a prohibited country.

Trahan withdrew the amendment after Pallone said he and Rodgers intended to include the broader prohibition in a comprehensive federal data privacy legislation.

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