Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 8 March 2024



Biden Backs Effort to Force Sale of TikTok by Chinese Owners

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

WASHINGTON—President Biden said Friday he would sign into law a bill effectively banning video app TikTok or forcing its sale, fueling lawmakers’ latest push to block the app’s Chinese owners from operating in the U.S.

U.S. lawmakers are mounting their most serious attempt to address the purported national security risks of the popular app, advancing a bill that has more political momentum than previous attempts. An effort this week by TikTok to head off the measure by encouraging users to call their representatives appeared to backfire, with lawmakers saying a barrage of phone calls they received simply hardened their positions.

The bill, which is expected to easily pass the House on Wednesday, could hit turmoil in the Senate. Asked by reporters Friday if he would support the TikTok bill if it got to his desk, Biden said: “If they pass it, I’ll sign it.”


As lawmakers prepared to consider the legislation, users of the app, which is accessed by more than 170 million Americans, saw notifications Thursday 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.

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.

“They made the point for us,” Rep. Kat Cammack (R., Fla.), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in an interview Friday. “They hurt themselves pretty tremendously by doing what they did in targeting members of Congress and using content creators and users of the app as foot soldiers” of the Chinese government, she said.

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.

In one office, a caller impersonated the lawmaker’s son, who hadn’t in fact dialed his father, said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, the top Democrat on the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party.

“I talked to so many people who were ‘lean yes’ and then they became a ‘hell yes’ after this happened,” Krishnamoorthi said.


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 Biden joined TikTok as part of his re-election campaign. A spokesman for the Biden campaign didn’t return a request for comment.

Former President Donald Trump criticized the TikTok measure late Thursday on his social-media network Truth Social. He wrote that banning TikTok would only help

, which he described as an “enemy of the people.” Facebook parent companydidn’t respond to a request for comment.

That marks a shift from when Trump was president. Then, he sought to shut down TikTok in the U.S. if the company wasn’t put under control of U.S. owners. Federal court rulings blocked Trump’s orders from taking effect. Biden later revoked the Trump-era effort, substituting an executive order mandating a broad review of apps controlled by foreign adversaries.


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Biden administration officials concluded that TikTok represented a national-security threat but were uncertain they had the legal authority to effectively ban the app or separate it from its Chinese owner. The new TikTok bill aims to give the White House clear authority to do so.

In 2022, TikTok and the U.S. government had been in talks over a potential deal under which the company would store American user data on

Corp.servers in the U.S. and limit access for others to it, but senior administration officials, including Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, argued that anything short of forcing ByteDance to divest itself of TikTok wouldn’t ameliorate concerns, the Journal previously reported. ByteDance wasn’t willing to do so, and after those talks stalled, Monaco and other administration officials worked with Congress to develop the new legislation, a U.S. official familiar with the matter said.

At the same time, many politicians have embraced TikTok. The Biden campaign started posting on TikTok earlier this year in an effort to reach younger voters despite national-security concerns over the app.


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.

The week’s events unfurled rapidly. 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.”

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. “It’s inconsistent with the First Amendment,” Paul said of his opposition. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people behind it.”

Aruna Viswanatha contributed to this article.

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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