Senate’s crackdown on TikTok gains momentum as House gears up to question firm’s CEO

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Momentum for efforts to restrict TikTok is building in the Senate, and House lawmakers are preparing to grill the company’s CEO, as the China-founded app looks to be running out of time to persuade federal lawmakers not to limit its operations.

Two Republican senators authored a new plan to withhold taxpayer cash from supporting TikTok’s business partners, while bipartisan legislation to empower the Biden administration to ban the app enlisted six more senators on Friday.

Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Joni Ernst of Iowa proposed the No Funds for Enablers of Adversarial Propaganda Act to prevent Americans from subsidizing people who do business with TikTok and social media companies connected with China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, North Korea, and Venezuela.

Mr. Rubio said entities taking advertising cash from TikTok, such as U.S. airports, are either “naive, greedy, or both.”

“They shouldn’t receive taxpayer dollars if they are going to accept money from or partner with TikTok,” Mr. Rubio said in a statement. “These companies need to stop enabling Chinese Communist Party propaganda and espionage efforts.”

The bill targets any individual or entity that has a contractual agreement, partnership, or advertising relationship with social media companies based in certain countries, which applies to TikTok given its connection to China.

TikTok has previously pointed to its parent company as being headquartered in the Cayman Islands, but Mr. Rubio and Ms. Ernst’s draft legislation does not permit companies to dodge the law by moving their headquarters. The bill applies to companies whose principal place of business is in a country of concern or is organized under the laws of such countries.

TikTok has sought to create a new entity, TikTok U.S. Data Security, that the company claims will be separated from China’s gaze. The U.S. government is not yet satisfied, and President Biden signed legislation in December forcing the removal of TikTok from government devices.

Mr. Biden has not made a formal decision about a broader ban on TikTok, though his administration has reportedly heaped private pressure on ByteDance to sell its stakes in TikTok or watch the popular app get banned.

To ensure Mr. Biden’s team has the legal authority to impose a ban, Sens. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, and John Thune, South Dakota Republican, joined with 10 other senators earlier this month to create a process to review and restrict tech platforms such as TikTok.

The Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act would task the Commerce Department with leading reviews of technology such as TikTok and to make determinations within 180 days about whether they pose risk.

If the department determines national security risk exists and pursues a ban of the technology, the bill directs the Commerce Department to work with the intelligence community to declassify info explaining the government’s actions.

Mr. Warner and Mr. Thune announced Friday that six more senators, three Republicans and three Democrats, had signed on to support their proposal, which also received the blessing of the White House via public praise from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

While the Senate is gearing up to crack down, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is scheduled to interrogate TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on Thursday.

The congressional grilling may not be the end of difficult questions for the company’s top executive, however. The FBI and Department of Justice are investigating allegations that ByteDance used TikTok to surveil Americans, according to Forbes.

TikTok referred questions about the matter to ByteDance, which said it condemned those people at ByteDance who were responsible and whom ByteDance said it no longer employed.

“Our internal investigation is still ongoing, and we will cooperate with any official investigations when brought to us,” Jennifer Banks, ByteDance spokesperson, said in an email. 

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