TikTok says US House bill that could ban app would ‘trample’ free speech

By Kanishka Singh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -TikTok on Sunday repeated its free-speech concerns about a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would ban the popular social media app in the U.S. if Chinese owner ByteDance did not sell its stake within a year.

The House passed the legislation on Saturday by a margin of 360 to 58. It now moves to the Senate where it could be taken up for a vote in the coming days. President Joe Biden has previously said he would sign the legislation on TikTok.

Many U.S. lawmakers from both the Republican and Democratic parties and the Biden administration say TikTok poses national security risks because China could compel the company to share the data of its 170 million U.S. users.

The step to include TikTok in a broader foreign aid package may fast-track the timeline on a potential ban after an earlier separate bill stalled in the Senate.

“It is unfortunate that the House of Representatives is using the cover of important foreign and humanitarian assistance to once again jam through a ban bill that would trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans,” TikTok said in a statement.

TikTok in February had criticized the original bill that ultimately stalled in the Senate, saying that it would “censor millions of Americans.” It had similarly argued that a state ban on TikTok in Montana passed last year was a violation of the First Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the House bill on free speech grounds.

TikTok insists it has never shared U.S. data and never would.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Sunday that TikTok could be used as a propaganda tool by the Chinese government, noting that “many young people” use TikTok to get news.

“The idea that we would give the Communist Party this much of a propaganda tool as well as the ability to scrape 170 million Americans’ personal data, it is a national security risk,” he told CBS News.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, a free speech group, said the latest bill had “no real pay-off” because China and other U.S. rivals could still buy Americans’ data from brokers in the open market and engage in disinformation campaigns using U.S.-based social media platforms.

Some Democrats have also raised free speech concerns over a ban and instead asked for stronger data privacy legislation. 

Democratic Representative Ro Khanna told ABC News on Sunday that he felt a TikTok ban may not survive legal scrutiny in courts, citing the Constitution’s free speech protections.

The House voted on March 13 to give ByteDance about six months to divest the U.S. assets of TikTok or face a ban.

The legislation passed on Saturday gives a nine-month deadline that could be extended by three months if the president was to determine progress toward a sale.

Maria Cantwell, the Senate Commerce Committee chair, expressed support for the latest bill. She had earlier asked the House to revise some details in the March 13 bill.

TikTok was also a topic of conversation in a call between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month. Biden raised concerns about the app’s ownership.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Leslie Adler)