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Schumer signals slower pace on TikTok measure in the Senate

Concerns over free speech restrictions and presidential overreach prompt a closer review

Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, arrives to testify during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January.
Shou Zi Chew, CEO of TikTok, arrives to testify during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers’ long-held concerns about the growing reach of China’s technology platforms and its ability to influence Americans culminated in a bill overwhelmingly supported in the House that would require the divestiture of TikTok.

The bill’s next step is the Senate, though, where the attitude was summed up Wednesday by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who greeted the House passage by saying, “The Senate will review the legislation when it comes over from the House,” offering no indication of a timetable. 

Some senators may be equally alarmed about the rise of China’s technology platforms, but the chamber clearly doesn’t have the House’s fervor, which took the bill from introduction to passage by a 352-65 vote within a week.

House members of both parties — including Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., who lead the House select China committee and introduced the legislation — urged senators to act quickly in passing companion legislation, as did former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

The measure would require TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance to divest its U.S. subsidiary within six months of the law taking effect. The bill also 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. 

Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., top lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee with access to intelligence information on China’s potential to use TikTok to influence the thinking of its 170 million American users, welcomed the House measure.

“We are united in our concern about the national security threat posed by TikTok — a platform with enormous power to influence and divide Americans whose parent company ByteDance remains legally required to do the bidding of the Chinese Communist Party,” Warner and Rubio said in a statement. “We were encouraged by today’s strong bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives, and look forward to working together to get this bill passed through the Senate and signed into law.”

But other senators have been circumspect as civil rights groups raise questions about the measure. Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said the bill violated the First Amendment right to free speech. 

The House-passed measure is “a great gift to authoritarians around the world, who will soon be citing it to justify new restrictions on their own citizens’ access to ideas, information, and media from abroad,” Jaffer said in a statement. “The bill is also a missed opportunity, because Congress can address the most serious problems associated with TikTok without restricting Americans’ access to one of the world’s most popular communications platforms. It should begin by passing a comprehensive privacy law.”

Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in an email that she would be speaking with her House and Senate colleagues to “try to find a path forward that is constitutional and protects civil liberties” while acknowledging she was “very concerned about foreign adversaries’ exploitation of Americans’ sensitive data and their attempts to build backdoors in our information communication technology and services supply chains.”

Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have said they wanted to review the House bill before deciding how to proceed. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., supported the House measure and said he expected overwhelming support in the Senate. 

Apprehensions

Even some House members who supported the bill have reservations. Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., voted for the House measure but said it represented “a whack-a-mole approach” to protecting Americans’ data privacy. Congress needed to pass a comprehensive federal data privacy bill to “put Americans back in control of their personal information,” she said.

Speaking on the House floor before the vote, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, urged Congress to close loopholes to ensure that China and others can’t continue to get Americans’ data through other means. 

“Even if TikTok is divested, China and other foreign adversaries will still be able to acquire vast amounts of Americans’ data because we place no restrictions on data brokers who sell data to them,” Pallone said. “That must stop as well.” 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee last week voted 50-0 to advance a measure that would prohibit data brokers from selling Americans’ data to foreign adversaries. The bill has yet to get a House vote. 

Pallone also called for a federal data privacy bill that has been stalled for years as lawmakers have yet to reach consensus, even as more than a dozen states have passed a patchwork of privacy laws. 

Some lawmakers of both parties, a minority so far, opposed the TikTok bill on the grounds of free speech and presidential overreach. Backers of the legislation “have described TikTok as a Trojan horse, but some of us feel that either intentionally or unintentionally this legislation to ban TikTok is actually a Trojan horse,” Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., said before the vote. 

The bill could violate Americans’ First Amendment rights by denying them access to information they are entitled to have, Massie said. “Some of us just don’t want the president picking which apps we can put on our phones or which websites that we can visit,” he added. 

House Democrats who voted against the measure included California Reps. Robert Garcia and Sydney Kamlager-Dove. Garcia argued before the vote that TikTok should not be treated differently from other social media platforms because misinformation was rampant on all such platforms. 

Kamlager-Dove said before the vote that banning TikTok was a Band-Aid solution. “The bill seriously undermines civil liberties by essentially banning” the app, she said, adding that the bill also expanded the authority of the president to ban similar apps in the future without any congressional oversight.

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