House passes Mike Gallagher-led bill to force sale of TikTok

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WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday passed legislation that would force TikTok’s Chinese parent company to sell the app or face a ban in the United States, marking the biggest step from Congress to limit the video sharing platform over national security concerns.

The 352-65-1 bipartisan vote was a win for Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, an author of the bill who has long pushed to ban TikTok. Gallagher, the leader of the House select committee on the Chinese Communist Party, has argued the Chinese government could use the platform to collect user data and promote propaganda.

“We can’t take the chance of having a dominant news platform in America controlled or owned by a company that is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party, our foremost adversary,” Gallagher, a Green Bay Republican, recently said of TikTok, which is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance.

The 13-page measure would remove TikTok from app stores in the U.S. if ByteDance does not sell its stake in the application in roughly the next six months. Gallagher and both Republican and Democratic supporters of the bill have noted the legislation is a divestiture, not an outright ban, should it become law and ByteDance complies.

President Joe Biden has said he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk, but former President Donald Trump opposes the legislation, and its future in the Senate is uncertain. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the upper chamber will review the legislation, but he has not promised a vote.

Wisconsin’s six House Republicans backed the legislation on Wednesday, and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel it was “probably something I would support” because it called for ByteDance’s divestiture from TikTok and was not simply a ban.

But some Democrats have raised concerns about the speed with which the measure was brought for a vote without amendments, as well as about concerns over freedom of speech and users who promote their businesses through the app.

And Trump, who once issued an executive order to ban the app that was later overturned in court, came out against the bill, saying a national TikTok ban would only serve to grow Facebook, which he called the “enemy of the people” — comments that could sway some Republicans.

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat who opposed the bill, said after a classified briefing on TikTok Tuesday that he did not see “an urgent reason to do this” and called the bill “Big Brother-ish.” He said the process of passing the bill was rushed and labeled the effort “anti-business.”

“This thing isn’t passing the smell test of needed for good legislation at this point,” said Pocan, who last year emerged as a vocal opponent of efforts to ban TikTok. Milwaukee Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore also opposed the bill Wednesday.

While some lawmakers have taken issue with TikTok and ByteDance being the only entities named in the legislation, Gallagher argued this week that his measure’s scope is broader and could clear any First Amendment challenges.

The legislation would apply to media companies operating in the U.S. in which China, Russia, Iran or North Korea have at least a 20% stake. It would also establish a process for the president to designate social media applications subject to oversight from those countries as national security threats.

Gallagher said the bill could serve as a “regulatory framework for any social media company controlled” by foreign adversaries. He noted the bill would not allow the executive branch to go after American companies and said it does not target individuals.

“The reason we mention ByteDance is ByteDance is the only company at present that’s met the very high evidentiary bar,” Gallagher told the Journal Sentinel on Tuesday.

“The bill is, at its core, a framework to tackle social media applications that are owned or controlled by a foreign adversary country,” Gallagher added. He pushed back Tuesday on Trump’s criticism of the bill, noting the measure wouldn’t force TikTok users to Facebook.

Wednesday’s vote was Congress’ most recent step to crack down on Chinese-owned entities operating in the U.S. It also marked a benchmark for Gallagher, who as chairman of the select committee on China has made investigating how to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s influence a top priority. Recently, he’s listed dealing with TikTok’s current ownership as something he wanted to do before the end of the current Congress.

Gallagher announced last month that he will not seek reelection in November and said he would use his last several months on Capitol Hill to try to pass his committee's policy recommendations into law.

Gallagher and other Wisconsin Republicans on Capitol Hill successfully urged Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to ban TikTok on state-issued devices last year. And top national security officials, including the director of the FBI, have warned of ByteDance’s ties to the Chinese government and its potential ability to access data and use its algorithm to filter what users see.

TikTok officials, for their part, have testified that U.S. user data is stored in the U.S. The app's top officials told members of Congress that TikTok has never shared data with the Chinese government. Opponents of the app maintain China can compel the company to hand over information.

The House-passed bill is one of several efforts to curtail apps like TikTik. A bipartisan group of senators in March of last year introduced a bill that would give the government more authority to regulate and potentially ban communications technology and social media platforms from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba that could create data and security risks.

That bill did not target specific companies but rather would establish what supporters called a “risk-based process” that would allow the government to adapt to “the rapidly changing technology and threat environment.”

Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin was a sponsor of that so-called RESTRICT Act. She said Wednesday she also supports the House-passed bill.

"The issue here is not the platform itself, but rather who owns it and has control of the personal data — China," Baldwin said in a statement. "I support the House’s effort to eliminate the national security threat that China poses and better keep Wisconsinites safe, while giving TikTok’s owners the option to do the right thing and keep the platform available for the millions of Americans.”

TikTok in recent days launched its own campaign to scuttle the legislation. As the bill moved through the House, the app encouraged users to call members of Congress to oppose it, resulting in a flood of calls to offices across Capitol Hill. An aide to Pocan estimated the office received about 25 calls in the last week, largely from children not old enough to vote, and Gallagher’s office said only that it received an “uptick in calls.”

Outside the U.S. Capitol Tuesday afternoon, dozens of TikTok users rallied with several young Democratic House members to oppose the bill. Rep. Maxwell Frost, the youngest member of Congress at 27, noted to reporters that many small businesses in his district use the app and raised freedom of speech concerns.

“Not only do I think this won’t address the full problem,” Frost said. “But I think we’re setting ourselves up in a year to be talking about this again.”

Earlier that day, however, Gallagher told the Journal Sentinel he saw a need for Congress to act with urgency. He noted the Director of National Intelligence has warned TikTok could be used to influence the 2024 election and said the longer Congress waits to move legislation, the harder it will get.

And he hoped for the bipartisan vote that came the next day.

“The number we posted today, I think, makes it impossible for the Senate to ignore the effort,” Gallagher said after the bill passed. "I think the most prudent thing for us to do now is just to engage with our colleagues in the Senate."

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: House passes Mike Gallagher-led bill to force sale of TikTok