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Why the House voted to ban TikTok and what could come next

The House is set to vote Wednesday on a bill that would require ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, to sell the app or face a ban on U.S. devices.
Dan Kitwood
Getty Images
The House is set to vote Wednesday on a bill that would require ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, to sell the app or face a ban on U.S. devices.

Updated March 13, 2024 at 12:25 PM ET

The House voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve a bipartisan bill that would require ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, to sell the social media app or face a ban on all U.S. devices. The vote was 352-65.

The legislation's fate is unclear in the Senate. The top two lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and Mark Warner, D-Va., released a joint statement praising the House bill and urging Senate action but the timeline is unclear. Several lawmakers have suggested the Senate should hold hearings on the legislation before moving forward.

Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., who chairs the House Select Committee on China and is the lead GOP sponsor of the bipartisan bill, maintains that the bill does not amount to a ban of the video-sharing app.

"What we're after is, it's not a ban, it's a forced separation," Gallagher told NPR. "The TikTok user experience can continue and improve so long as ByteDance doesn't own the company."

In practice, however, the bill would ban TikTok in the United States. Both the company and China, historically, have refused to consider divestiture.

TikTok has said the banning of a social media platform would amount to a violation of the free speech rights of millions of Americans.

Gallagher says classified and unclassified national security assessments show that the app is a threat to user privacy and that it's been used to target journalists and interfere in elections. Top officials from intelligence and national security agencies conducted a classified briefing on their analysis for all House members on Tuesday. Classified information is not made public, in part, because it deals with matters of national security.

However, officials have not offeredpublic evidence of the Chinese Communist Party using the app for surveillance or propaganda purposes, though experts say it is theoretically possible that Beijing could use TikTok to push its agenda.

FBI Director Christopher Wray has also publicly testified about his concerns about the app, including during an appearance last week at a Senate hearing on worldwide threats to U.S. security. In that testimony, Wray told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Chinese government could use the app to control software on millions of devices, among other concerns.

"We're not sure that we would see many of the outward signs of it happening if it was happening," Wray said.

The bipartisan measure was unanimously approved last week by the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Lobbying campaign flooded offices on Capitol Hill with calls

Gallagher says the lobbying campaign that TikTok launched — with push notices using location information to connect users by phone to their member of Congress — proves why the bill is needed.

"You had member offices being deluged with calls, you know, teenagers crying and one threatening suicide and one impersonating one of my colleague's sons," he said. "That, to me, demonstrates how the platform could be weaponized in the future."

The bipartisan bill, dubbed the "Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act," blocks any app store or webhosting services in the U.S. for ByteDance-controlled applications, including TikTok, unless the app severs ties to ByteDance, under a designation that it's subject to the control of a foreign adversary. The bill gives ByteDance up to six months to divest, and if it doesn't do that it would no longer be available in app stores in the U.S.

The bill also sets up a process for the president to address any future threats from any foreign-owned apps if they are deemed a national security risk. It also creates a system for users to download their own data and switch to an alternate platform.

Opponents cite freedom of speech and the economic impact of a ban

At 27 years old, Florida Democratic Rep. Maxwell Frost is the youngest member of Congress, and he opposes the bill.

"I think that it is a violation of people's First Amendment rights," he said. "TikTok is a place for people to express ideas. I have many small businesses in my district and content creators in my district, and I think it's going to drastically impact them too."

He and other opponents say the bill is being rushed through and that many lawmakers don't grasp the impact it could have.

TikTok declined an interview with NPR. In a statement, a spokesperson said: "The government is attempting to strip 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression. This will damage millions of businesses, deny artists an audience, and destroy the livelihoods of countless creators across the country."

Advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have called the bill "censorship plain and simple," arguing that "jeopardizing access to the platform jeopardizes access to free expression."

Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi is the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on China and helped write the bill. He pushed back on the company's argument, telling NPR, "There's no First Amendment right to espionage, there's no First Amendment right to harm our national security."

The company stresses that it has established a data firewall by partnering with Austin-based software company Oracle. Dubbed "Project Texas," the new system routes all U.S. user traffic to Oracle, which now also controls the servers storing Americans' TikTok data. Still, the plan has not received the blessing from officials in Washington, who have said it falls short of a full breakup with ByteDance.

But Krishnamoorthi says he and other lawmakers reviewed the efforts and says the company's claims about its safeguards were false. "Whether it was TikTok saying that 'oh, American user data is not going to be accessible to anyone in China.' Again, wrong. That was also proven false. And then they said that American user data is not going to be used to target anybody again. Wrong. That was false."

Even opponents of the bill expected it to easily clear the House, so TikTok is focused on blocking action in the Senate. According to a source familiar with the effort, CEO Shou Zi Chew was in Washington this week and on Capitol Hill to discuss the bill with lawmakers.

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley backs the House bill. He says he's frustrated that Congress has failed to move tech legislation and argues TikTok is different from other apps. "The really only reason to ban it — it is a major national security concern — and that makes it very different from Google and Meta and the others who do all kinds of bad stuff but they are not effective subsidiaries of a hostile foreign government."

Presidential campaign politics could impact path for bill

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, proposed a ban in 2020 when he was in the White House. But he does not support the House bill.

When he served as president he vowed to ban the social media app. Trump explained his new opposition in an interview with CNBCon Monday, saying that despite the possible security risk, he opposed a ban because it meant users would move to another platform that he considered more dangerous.

"There's a lot of good and there's a lot of bad with TikTok. But the thing I don't like is that without TikTok, you can make Facebook bigger and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people along with a lot of the media," he said.

President Biden's campaign posts regularly on TikTok, but the White House has said if a bill is sent to his deskhe'll sign it.

If a law is enacted, the fight might not end there: TikTok has mounted legal challenges against other efforts to ban the app, and courts have sided with its argument that blocking TikTok violates users' First Amendment rights.

NPR's Claudia Grisales contributed to this report.

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.