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New bipartisan TikTok ban bill allows Commerce Department to scrutinize foreign tech

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(WASHINGTON) — A bipartisan group of senior senators on Tuesday unveiled plans to introduce a bill they hope will effectively ban TikTok — as well as future apps that they say might jeopardize U.S. national security — joining a growing chorus of lawmakers seeking a nationwide ban of the popular social media platform used by some 100 million Americans, including politicians, every day.

The legislation, authored by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner and No. 2 Senate Republican John Thune, would give new powers to the Commerce Department to scrutinize foreign technology from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba, including applications like TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance.

The new powers would include the ability to disband any company deemed a national security threat. Warner also cited the concerns voiced by many lawmakers that the video-sharing app could be used as a propaganda tool of the Chinese Communist Party.

“The Restrict Act is more than about TikTok and will give us that comprehensive approach,” Warner said in unveiling the bill.

“Our legislation says that any foreign communications technology that poses a national security risk — and one of the key things about or bill as well says that it’s incumbent upon the intelligence community to declassify as much information as possible to make that case — that we give the commerce secretary the tools to mitigate to divest up to and including banning these sort of technologies,” he told ABC News.

The Biden administration at the end of February gave federal agencies 30 days to wipe TikTok from all federal government systems and devices, per a congressional ban enacted with sweeping bipartisan support in December.

Many agencies, including the Defense Department and Department of Homeland Security, had already enacted bans. Canada and the European Union have taken similar steps. India has long banned the app.

Warner said he and Thune worked very closely with the White House on the legislation and as they unveiled it, the White House put out a statement supporting the measure and urging Congress to send it to President Joe Biden to sign.

“This legislation would empower the United States government to prevent certain foreign governments from exploiting technology services operating in the United States in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our national security,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. “We look forward to continue working with both Democrats and Republicans on this bill, and urge Congress to act quickly to send it to the President’s desk.”

All of this is coming at a time of growing strife between the two superpowers particularly in the wake of the China spy balloon that entered U.S. airspace and was shot down on the orders of President Biden and threats that the Asian nation might arm Russia in its war against Ukraine, among numerous examples of conflict.

“The Chinese Communist Party has proven over the last few years that is willing to lie about just about everything. That likely won’t end with TikTok, which is why it’s important to establish a holistic and methodical approach to the challenges that are posed by technology from foreign adversaries. Safe to assume that the CCP is willing to lie about its spy balloon and cover up the origins of the worst pandemic than 100 years, they’ll lie about using Tiktok to spy on American citizens,” Thune told reporters in a news conference Tuesday.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a co-sponor of the bill, said, “We have to recognize that we face geopolitical adversaries that are serious and threaten our security, our prosperity, and even the peace and freedom that we enjoy.”

Noting criticism that the bill would infringe on the privacy of Americans, Romney said, “One thing a lot worse than having our government infringe on our privacy is having the Chinese Communist Party infringe on our privacy and be able to track us and follow us. And whether it’s with social media or other technologies, communication technologies or hardware that they devise over the coming years, we have to make sure that we have the resources in place and the authorities in place to stop those things before they endanger us.”

TikTok has consistently denied that its China-based parent company is using the app to spy on Americans. And following approval in the House Foreign Affairs Committee of a bipartisan bill that would empower President Biden to ban TikTok, the company fired back, “A US ban on TikTok is a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide. We’re disappointed to see this rushed piece of legislation move forward, despite its considerable negative impact on the free-speech rights of millions of Americans who use and love TikTok.”

Citing past Congressional efforts to ban the federal government use of products from foreign companies deemed a threat to U.S. national security, like Russian based anti-malware company Kaspersky Lab, and China’s Huawei Technologies and ZTE, Warner said he wants to move beyond the current “whack-a-mole approach that we’ve had with the threats of foreign technology.” Instead, the Virginia Democrat and former tech entrepreneur said it’s time to view national security threats through a modern day lens and not “the old definition…which were planes, tanks, and guns.” The senator said the new field of confrontation is “morphing into who controls and wins the technology battle.”

The Warner-Thune bill, also sponsored by five Democrats and five Republicans, might also withstand court scrutiny with specific legislation empowering a new federal agency within the Commerce Department. Cold War-era laws designed to protect entertainment industries from any retaliation by the president, and later expanded to include First Amendment concerns, were used by TikTok in a suit during the Trump administration which sought to restrict the social media behemoth.

Not all lawmakers are on board with such a ban, either.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, the top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, told ABC News Live Tuesday, “I think that we have to get all of the evidence first, as opposed to the bill that was produced in the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, where it basically said that there should be a ban on TikTok almost immediately. I believe that the bill as written, you know, basically ties the Biden administration’s hands,” who pointed to a department within the Treasury Department that analyzes foreign investments in the U.S.

“I think that as opposed to rushing into it, there’s ways that we could make sure that we protect and should sanctions be needed, then the administration has the power to do it as opposed to having mandatory sanctions now, which I think would be–could cause more headaches than others because it could cause headaches with our allies.”

ABC News’ Sarah Kolinovsky and Justin Gomez contributed to this report.

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