Senators propose a plan to do something about TikTok, but it's not clear what

Amid an increasingly contested debate over whether to ban TikTok, a group of bipartisan senators proposed on Tuesday to create a process by which the U.S. government can decide whether to stop the Chinese social media app from operating in this country.

The U.S. government has already been in negotiations with TikTok over how to protect the data of users in the U.S. But Republicans — led by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — have proposed legislation to ban TikTok entirely from the U.S. That bill gained the support of Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats, last month.

And Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the powerful chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has been growing increasingly concerned about the way that the Chinese government seems to be using TikTok to conduct a slow-burn propaganda campaign against the U.S. population of users, which he said numbers about 100 million mostly young people for roughly 90 minutes a day.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner talks to reporters while introducing the Restrict Act with, from left to right, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, on Tuesday
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner talks to reporters while introducing the Restrict Act with, from left to right, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Warner has said he is more concerned with the way the Chinese government may be influencing TikTok to give young users in China “videos advancing science, supporting the environment, supporting the Communist Party,” while “what we get in America and the rest of the world is kind of the crack version.”

A Warner spokesman told Yahoo News that he had grown impatient with the Biden administration’s negotiations with TikTok.

But it was unclear how the legislation introduced Tuesday by Warner and co-sponsored by Sen. John Thune, R-N.D. — along with a group of Democrats and Republicans — would speed up the process of bringing resolution to a confounding problem.

While Republicans are increasingly bullish about simply banning TikTok, Democrats are stuck in between national security concerns and the reality that many of the voters they want to reach in the next election are highly active on the platform.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., co-sponsored the bill but told reporters at the press conference called by Warner that his grandchildren, who are in their early 20s, had pleaded with him not to get rid of TikTok. “They said please be careful what you do here, because it’s a way we communicate and we all enjoy it,” Manchin said.

Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio, a proponent of a ban on TikTok. (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post via Getty Images)

And Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo — who under this legislation would be in charge of the process to review whether to take action against foreign-owned companies — was even more plain-spoken about the political problem posed by Tik Tok, in a recent interview with Bloomberg News.

“Passing a law to ban a single company is not the way to deal with this issue,” Raimondo said. “The politician in me thinks you’re going to literally lose every voter under 35, forever.”

A Republican senate staffer told Yahoo News that during the 2022 election, Democrats were active on TikTok trying to engage voters, while Republicans were largely absent. And the Washington Post reported recently that the Biden White House is looking for ways to communicate with voters through TikTok and other platforms at a time when it is increasingly hard to reach Americans through traditional ways of advertising and political messaging.

Civil liberties groups have also voiced opposition to a TikTok ban.

But President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, praised the Warner-Thune bill.

TikTok app logo
The TikTok app logo. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

“This legislation would provide the U.S. government with new mechanisms to mitigate the national security risks posed by high-risk technology businesses operating in the United States. Critically, it would strengthen our ability to address discrete risks posed by individual transactions, and systemic risks posed by certain classes of transactions involving countries of concern in sensitive technology sectors,” Sullivan said.

But one foreign policy analyst said the White House supports the Warner-Thune bill because it slows down the process of moving toward a ban on Tik Tok.

“There’s a reason the White House supports this legislation: They don't want to ban TikTok. This bill gives them a gigantic loophole to avoid doing so,” tweeted Michael Sobolik, a fellow in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, a right-leaning think tank.

The Restrict Act would “require the Secretary of Commerce to establish procedures to identify, deter, disrupt, prevent, prohibit, and mitigate transactions involving information and communications technology products in which any foreign adversary has any interest and poses undue or unacceptable risk to national security,” according to a summary distributed by Warner’s office.

Appearing on CNBC Tuesday morning, Warner said that his bill was “less about TikTok and more about” creating “a modern framework that can take on software, hardware, mobile apps that pose a national security threat.”

Sen. Joe Manchin
Sen. Joe Manchin discussing the Restrict Act at a news conference on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

But at the press conference later, Thune made sure to point out that the bill “ultimately could lead, I would add, to banning platforms like TikTok.”

Warner, on two occasions at the same press conference, pointed out that the U.S. intelligence community would need to share more information about the threats posed by TikTok to the public “so we’re not just asking the public to trust us.”

“It’s going to be incumbent upon the government to show its cards in terms of how this is a threat,” Warner said.

Warner will have an opportunity to make this case directly to U.S. intelligence agency leaders on Wednesday, when he chairs a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing where they will hear from the leaders of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency.