Washington — A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a bill Tuesday that would give the executive branch new powers to take action against tech companies with ties to foreign adversaries and cut them off from the U.S. market, a measure that would allow the Biden administration to eventually ban Chinese-owned TikTok and other tech products in the name of protecting national security.
The legislation — titled the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act — would apply to technology tied to China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela that “poses an undue or unacceptable risk” to national security.
“Today everybody is talking about TikTok. But before there was TiKTok, there was Huawei and ZTE. Before that, there was Russia’s Kaspersky Labs,” Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said at the Capitol, referencing previous action to block technology from other Chinese and Russian firms.
“Instead of playing Whac-A-Mole on Huawei one day, ZTE the next, Kaspersky, TikTok, we need a more comprehensive approach to evaluating and mitigating these threats posed by these foreign technologies from these adversarial nations,” he added.
TikTok, the massively popular social video platform, has come under fire in recent years from U.S. lawmakers and regulators who have expressed increasingly dire concerns about its Beijing-based parent company ByteDance, and the potential for the Chinese Communist Party to gain access the app’s vast trove of user data.
The RESTRICT Act would give the Commerce Department tools to mitigate threats from foreign technology companies, including banning them, and create a “rules-based process” aimed at withstanding potential legal challenges, Warner said. It would also encourage the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify some information on why the technology companies posed an unacceptable risk.
“We’ve got to have our intelligence community be forward-leaning at being willing to declassify the information about why some of these foreign-based technologies pose national security risks, so we’re not just asking the public to trust us,” Warner said.
The group, led by Warner and Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, also includes Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, and Republican Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Mitt Romney of Utah.
“There are a lot of us that are concerned about privacy,” Romney said. “We say, ‘Gosh, we don’t want the government to know everything we’re doing. We want to protect our personal privacy.’ Well, one thing a lot worse than having our government infringe on our privacy is having the Chinese Communist Party infringe on our privacy and be able to track us and follow us.”
The White House said it backed the legislation, the first time it has formally endorsed a plan that could lead to a ban on TikTok.
“This legislation would empower the United States government to prevent certain foreign governments from exploiting technology services operating in the United States in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our national security,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
Brooke Oberwetter, a spokesperson for TikTok said in a statement that “the swiftest and most thorough way to address any national security concerns about TikTok is for [the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States] to adopt the proposed agreement that we worked with them on for nearly two years.”
“We have been waiting for CFIUS to finalize our agreement for over six months now, while our status has been debated in public in a way that is divorced from the facts of that agreement and what we’ve achieved already,” Oberwetter said. “We will continue to do our part to deliver a comprehensive national security plan for the American people.”
Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted along party lines on a separate bill that would allow President Biden to ban TikTok. House Democrats on the committee voted against it, citing concerns about unintended consequences and the legislation’s scope.
The Senate and House voted last year to ban the app from government devices, and the White House recently gave agencies 30 days to implement the ban.
TikTok has defended its handling of user data and said it does not share data with the Chinese government. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify to Congress later this month.