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House votes for possible TikTok ban in the US

WASHINGTON >> The House of Representatives today passed legislation that would ban TikTok in the United States if the popular social media platform’s Chinese owner doesn’t sell its stake within a year, but don’t expect the app to disappear anytime soon.

House Republicans’ decision to include TikTok as part of a larger foreign aid package, a priority for President Joe Biden with broad congressional support for Ukraine and Israel, accelerated the ban after an earlier version in the Senate was stuck.

A standalone bill with a shorter six-month sales deadline passed the House of Representatives in March by an overwhelming vote, as both Democrats and Republicans raised national security concerns about the app’s owner, the Chinese tech company ByteDance Ltd.

The amended measure, passed by a vote of 360 to 58, now heads to the Senate following negotiations that extended the timeline for the company’s sale to nine months, with a possible additional three months if a sale occurs.

Legal challenges could extend that timeline even further. The company has indicated it will likely go to court to try to block the law if it passes, arguing it would deprive the app’s millions of users of their First Amendment rights.

TikTok has lobbied hard against the legislation, prompting the app’s 170 million U.S. users — many of whom are young — to call Congress and voice opposition. But the ferocity of the backlash angered lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where there are widespread concerns about Chinese threats to the U.S. and few members use the platform themselves.

“We will not stop fighting and advocating for you,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said in a video posted on the platform last month addressed to the app’s users. “We will continue to do everything we can, including exercising our legal rights, to protect this incredible platform we have built with you.”

The bill’s rapid passage through Congress is extraordinary because it targets one company and because Congress has taken a hands-off approach to technology regulation for decades. Lawmakers had failed to take action despite efforts to, among other things, protect children online, ensure user privacy and make companies more accountable for content posted on their platforms. But the TikTok ban reflects lawmakers’ widespread concerns about China.

Members of both parties, along with intelligence officials, are concerned that Chinese authorities could force ByteDance to hand over U.S. user data or direct the company to suppress or boost TikTok content favorable to its interests. TikTok has denied claims that it could be used as a tool of the Chinese government and has said it has not shared any US user data with Chinese authorities.

The U.S. government has not publicly provided evidence showing that TikTok shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government or tinkered with the company’s popular algorithm, which influences what Americans see.

The company has good reason to think a legal challenge could be successful, having seen some success in previous legal battles over its US operations. In November, a federal judge blocked a Montana law that would have banned the use of TikTok across the state after the company and five content creators who use the platform filed a lawsuit.

In 2020, federal courts blocked an executive order by then-President Donald Trump to ban TikTok after the company filed a lawsuit alleging the order violated free speech and the right to due process. His government brokered a deal that would have seen American companies Oracle and Walmart take a major stake in TikTok. The sale never went through for a number of reasons; one was China, which imposed stricter export controls on its technology suppliers.

Dozens of states and the federal government have imposed TikTok bans on government devices. The Texas ban was challenged last year by Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which argued in a lawsuit that the policy hampered academic freedom because it extended to public universities. In December, a federal judge ruled in favor of the state.

Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have supported the app. “Congress cannot take away the rights of more than 170 million Americans who use TikTok to express themselves, engage in political advocacy and access information from around the world,” said Jenna Leventoff, an attorney for the group .

TikTok has spent $5 million on TV ads opposing the legislation since mid-March, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking company. The ads feature several content creators, including a nun, praising the platform’s positive impact on their lives and arguing that a ban would trample on the First Amendment. The company has also encouraged its users to contact Congress, and some lawmakers have received phone calls containing profanity.

“It is unfortunate that the House of Representatives is using the cover of important foreign and humanitarian aid to push through yet another prohibition bill that would trample the freedom of speech of 170 million Americans, destroy seven million businesses, and shut down a platform that contributes annually $24 billion will flow into the U.S. economy,” said company spokesperson Alex Haurek.

California Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat, voted against the legislation. He said he thinks there could have been less restrictive ways to go after the company that wouldn’t lead to a total ban or threaten freedom of speech.

“I don’t think it will be well received,” Khanna said. “It’s a sign that the Beltway is out of touch with where voters are.”

Nadya Okamoto, a content creator who has about 4 million followers on TikTok, said she has had conversations with other creators who are experiencing “so much anger and fear” about the bill and how it will affect their lives. The 26-year-old, whose company ‘August’ sells menstrual products and is known for her advocacy around destigmatising menstrual periods, makes most of her income from TikTok.

“This is going to have real consequences,” she says.