Senate Democrats and Republicans have introduced a bill that would give the administration new powers to ban Chinese apps that pose security threats, including the popular video-sharing platform TikTok.
Mark Warner, the Democratic head of the Senate intelligence committee, announced the bill on Tuesday as part of an effort to create a more co-ordinated approach across the government to address threats from countries such as China, Russia and Iran.
The Restrict Act — an acronym for “Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology” — would require the commerce secretary to establish a process to identify threats related to communications and information technology and create solutions to address them.
Warner said it would give the commerce secretary the authority to ban foreign technology. It would also tackle areas such as artificial intelligence, financial technology and quantum computing, which he said have not been adequately covered by the existing authorities of the executive branch.
The Virginia Democrat said that while the focus now is on TikTok — and in the past has been on Huawei, the Chinese telecoms group — the US had to adopt a process to tackle a wide range of technology threats.
“We need a comprehensive, risk-based approach that proactively tackles sources of potentially dangerous technology before they gain a foothold in America, so we aren’t playing Whack-A-Mole.”
Emily Kilcrease, a technology and security expert at the CNAS think-tank, called the bill “a very serious effort to provide a real regulatory and legal framework for addressing risks like TikTok, but not limited to TikTok”.
“It resolves a lot of the problems that the US has had dealing with TikTok with existing authorities,” she added, including the cold war-era Berman amendment, which had made it difficult to regulate foreign digital content.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — an inter-agency panel that evaluates foreign investment into the US — has been evaluating possible solutions to address the security threat the administration believes TikTok poses while allowing the app to continue to operate.
The investigation started after ByteDance, the Chinese owner of TikTok, bought Musical.ly in 2017 and merged it with TikTok. But some people within Cfius oppose any compromise solution.
The bill was introduced by a dozen senators, including Republicans John Thune and Mitt Romney. While it does not mention TikTok by name, the administration’s struggle to reach a solution on how to manage the viral video-sharing app, which the intelligence community views as a threat, was a significant driver behind the bill.
Thune said the bill could lead to TikTok being banned in the US.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan applauded the bill, saying it would empower the government “to prevent certain foreign governments from exploiting technology services operating in the US in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our national security”.
The Restrict Act is one of several bills that have been introduced in Congress to tackle TikTok. The House foreign affairs committee last week passed a measure that would give the president the authority to ban TikTok, but it received no support from Democrats, partly because of its narrow focus on one app.
Warner and his colleagues hope that their bill, which focuses on any apps that are believed to pose a threat, will attract broad support.
But some Democrats have expressed concern that banning TikTok would have political implications given its popularity with young people. Commerce secretary Gina Raimondo would have the power to deal with the threats if the bill passes. But she recently suggested a total ban of the video-sharing app would amount to political suicide.
“The politician in me thinks you’re gonna literally lose every voter under 35, forever,” Raimondo told Bloomberg in an interview.
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