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Congress’ push to outlaw TikTok follows years of concern from elected officials about Chinese election interference and espionage

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On Wednesday the House passed a bill that could ban TikTok in the U.S., an escalation of the alarms sounded by high-ranking government officials, including commerce chief Gina Raimondo, over Chinese  influence on business and politics for years.

The bill, which passed by an overwhelming majority (362 to 65, with one representative voting present) in the House, would give TikTok’s Chinese parent company ByteDance a little more than five months to sell the app or face an effective blacklisting  from U.S. app marketplaces and web hosting services. The banishment would be enforced by hefty penalties. The bill’s sponsors maintain, however, that the bill is not necessarily equivalent to a ban because it gives TikTok’s parent company the chance to sell the app and continue operating in the U.S. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for TikTok lamented that the House bill moved forward so quickly, adding, “This process was secret and the bill was jammed through for one reason: It’s a ban.” 

The House vote on Wednesday was a key step toward the bill becoming law, but it still faces an uphill battle in the Senate in part because of increased lobbying by TikTok and objections from some of the app’s 170 million American users. Last week, Congress was flooded with calls after TikTok prompted its users in the app to complain to their representatives. Some influencers and business owners that make a living from the app have even protested in front of the White House.

Still, top elected officials and cabinet members have for years been fighting against the growth of Chinese business operations in the U.S. for one reason: possible influence from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community on Tuesday warned Congress during a hearing that Chinese influence could lead to myriad domestic threats, including election interference. 

When asked whether TikTok specifically could be used by the Chinese government to influence U.S. elections, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said, “We cannot rule out that the CCP would use it.” On the subject of TikTok, FBI Director Christoper Wray emphasized during the congressional hearing that the app poses a threat to U.S. citizens and could compromise their devices.

“Americans need to ask themselves whether they want to give the Chinese government the ability to control access to their data,” Wray added.

Support for a TikTok ban for national security reasons has come from the leaders of both major parties. Former President Donald Trump tried to ban the app through an executive order in 2020, and in 2022 President Biden signed legislation that banned the app from being downloaded on most government-owned devices.

Biden’s Commerce Secretary Raimondo has in the past pushed for more U.S. government oversight and control over Chinese products, and in a recent interview with CNBC said she was receptive to the TikTok ban bill, which President Biden has said he will sign if it reaches his desk.

“I think we might be able to mitigate the risks [from TikTok] if we had enough tools, but we may not,” Raimondo told CNBC. “And I think a ban is something that also needs to be considered.”

Apart from TikTok, Raimondo has also raised concerns over possible espionage by China through Chinese-made electric vehicles, which she said should not be allowed in the U.S. “unless we have very significant controls and conditions around the software and sensors in those cars.”

Last month, the Commerce Department opened an investigation into “connected vehicles” that use technology from countries such as China. These vehicles are increasingly equipped with advanced tech that could pose a threat to national security in some cases, according to the White House.

“New vulnerabilities and threats could arise with connected autos if a foreign government gained access to these vehicles’ systems or data,” the White House wrote

And it’s not just electric vehicles. Government officials like the FBI’s Wray have increasingly warned that China is working to covertly implement malware in critical U.S. infrastructure and isn’t just focused on political and military targets

“China’s hackers are positioning on American infrastructure in preparation to wreak havoc and cause real world harm to American citizens and communities if and when China decides the time has come to strike,” Wray said before the House China committee in February.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a congressional probe found communication equipment on Chinese-manufactured cargo cranes operating in U.S. ports that were not used in its normal operations, leading to renewed espionage concerns. The head of the Coast Guard Cyber Command later told Congress that officials had found security vulnerabilities in the cargo cranes but no “malware or Trojan horse-type software,” the Journal reported.

Beijing officials have repeatedly denied espionage claims by the U.S. government, and the TikTok ban is no different. 

Asked about the bill approved by the House Wednesday, China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters that the U.S. has never found evidence of TikTok posing a threat to its national security.

“Such practice of resorting to hegemonic moves when one could not succeed in fair competition disrupts the normal operation of businesses, undermines the confidence of international investors in the investment environment, sabotages the normal economic and trade order in the world and will eventually backfire on the U.S. itself,” he said.

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