New bill will give the Commerce Secretary the power to ban TikTok

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U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) speaks to the media following a classified briefing for U.S. Senators about the latest unknown objects shot down by the U.S. military, on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 14, 2023.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

A new bipartisan bill will empower the Secretary of Commerce to take action against technology companies based in six foreign adversary nations, which would include China-based TikTok owner ByteDance, including banning them altogether, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Tuesday.

The six countries included in the bill are China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela and Cuba, Warner said.

He’s set to introduce the legislation with Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., at a 3 p.m. ET press conference on Tuesday, marking the latest proposal seeking to limit the risk of the Chinese government influencing U.S. users through the popular video-sharing app.

Last week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a Republican-sponsored bill with similar goals along party lines. Still, several Democrats on the committee said they would like to support such a proposal, but hoped for more time and collaboration in crafting it.

TikTok has repeatedly said it does not store U.S. user data in China and has taken steps to build a plan to further reduce the risk of influence from the Chinese government. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Warner said he believes the risk that the Chinese government could direct TikTok to push or suppress certain messages is based on the potential for harm due to Chinese government access to U.S. users, rather than currently known issues. But, he said, the proposal would require the intelligence community to seek to declassify as much as possible if the administration wants to opt for a ban, to make the case to the public for why a technology truly is a national security risk.

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“This competition with China around who dominates technology domains, that really is where the nexus of national security lies going forward,” Warner said.

Warner acknowledged that TikTok users will likely try to find ways to get around a ban, should one come into place, like by using virtual private networks that can obscure the location from which a user is connecting to the internet. He added that the bill would not “go after individual users.”

He said the bill is not solely meant to address TikTok, and rather should create a “systemic approach” that prevents the need for one-off actions.

TikTok is still in discussions with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), which has jurisdiction to review national security risks stemming from ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of TikTok precursor Musical.ly. The company has described an elaborate plan known as Project Texas meant to mitigate the possibility of Chinese government influence on the app, but CFIUS must still approve the plan.

“The Biden Administration does not need additional authority from Congress to address national security concerns about TikTok: it can approve the deal negotiated with CFIUS over two years that it has spent the last six months reviewing,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter told CNBC. “A U.S. ban on TikTok is a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide. We hope that Congress will explore solutions to their national security concerns that won’t have the effect of censoring the voices of millions of Americans.”

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TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, is set to testify at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on March 23.

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