Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 8 March 2024


TikTok Stunt Motivates Lawmakers to Take On the App

Video app TikTok is accessed by more than 170 million Americans. Photo: allison dinner/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON—U.S. lawmakers are mounting their most serious attempt to effectively either ban popular video app TikTok or separate it from its Chinese owner, advancing a bill that has more political momentum than previous attempts.

As lawmakers prepared to consider the legislation on Thursday, users of the app, which is accessed by more than 170 million Americans, saw notifications urging them to complain to their House representative about the bill. Then the app let people call their representative with a few presses of buttons, fueling congressional concerns about TikTok.

TikTok’s campaign quickly overwhelmed the phone lines of some congressional offices, which were bombarded with hang-ups and questions. It also illustrated how TikTok could mobilize an army of people and gather data to push user behavior, which some lawmakers say is the exact reason they don’t want the company to have ties back to China.


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“I think TikTok made our case for us today,” said Rep. Bob Latta (R., Ohio), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce’s panel on communications and technology. 

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted unanimously, 50-0, to advance the bill Thursday. It would essentially require TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, to sell the app to an American owner or effectively face a ban.

Until Thursday’s committee vote, it was unclear how much support the legislation had.


Then the phones started ringing. 

“You had to dial the phone number on the screen before you could enter the app, so a lot of people were just hanging up,” when they connected, said committee member Rep. Scott Peters (D., Calif.). 

Committee member Rep. John Curtis (R., Utah) said he didn’t like that a Chinese-owned app tried to “manipulate a response” from its users. He said that feeling solidified unanimous support for the bill.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise says he plans to bring the legislation on TikTok to the House floor for a vote next week. Photo: Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg News

TikTok plans to further mobilize its users and TikTok celebrities to publicly campaign against legislation that could ban it, a person close to the company said. The person said the company also intends to speak with lawmakers and the Biden administration about its legal concerns about the legislation—and how it might be bad politics for the White House to be supporting the bill just weeks after President Biden joined TikTok as part of his re-election campaign. A spokesman for the Biden campaign didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R., La.) said he would bring the legislation to the House floor for a vote next week. The bill is expected to face a tougher time passing the Senate. 

Before this week, TikTok appeared to have cleared a series of earlier threats to its existence. Thursday’s events upended that period of calm, with a committee vote that was the product of months of quiet planning between a bipartisan group of lawmakers and the White House, which supports the bill.


“The Administration has worked with Members of Congress from both parties to arrive at a durable legislative solution that would address the threat of technology services operating in the United States in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our broader national security,” a spokesman for the National Security Council said in a statement Thursday.

When members of the House Energy and Commerce committee arrived at work on Monday, many were surprised to learn that they would vote on a new TikTok bill this week, said a Democratic aide, who added that the NSC was campaigning for it.

Before the vote on Thursday, lawmakers attended a classified briefing that focused on how TikTok can use the data of its users, two people said. That alarmed some legislators, lawmakers said.

TikTok plans to mobilize its users to campaign against legislation that could ban it, a person close to the company says. Photo: Nathan Howard/Bloomberg News

Supporters of the bill say it isn’t an attempt to ban TikTok, but to separate the app from ByteDance. If the legislation were to become law, ByteDance would have to sell TikTok to an owner that the U.S. government deems acceptable, or the app would essentially become inaccessible in the U.S.

TikTok considers the legislation an attempt to ban it. “This legislation has a predetermined outcome: a total ban of TikTok in the United States,” a TikTok spokesman 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.”

Meanwhile, around the country, some TikTok users opened their apps to find a notification that said that Congress was considering “a total ban of TikTok.” After entering a zip code and pressing a couple of buttons, they could call their lawmaker’s office directly.

In the Senate, the bill will likely find its way to the Senate Commerce Committee, where Chair Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) said late Thursday that she was concerned about “foreign adversaries’ exploitation of Americans’ sensitive data and their attempts to build backdoors in our information communication technology and services supply chains.’’ Later, she said “there are some issues” with this specific bill.

Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) has opposed a previous effort to ban downloading the app. Paul’s office didn’t return a request for comment Thursday.

Write to Stu Woo at, Natalie Andrews at and Kristina Peterson at

TikTok Under Scrutiny

Coverage and analysis of the Chinese-controlled video app, selected by editors

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