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Is the government trying to ban TikTok again? What to know about the bill calling for TikTok to divest from its China-based parent company.

A TikTok spokesperson claims "this bill is an outright ban of TikTok, no matter how much the authors try to disguise it."

People gather for a press conference about their opposition to a TikTok ban
People gather on Capitol Hill to express their opposition to a proposed TikTok ban, March 22, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

On March 7, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce unanimously approved advancing a bill that would give TikTok six months to divest from its parent company ByteDance or face a potential ban.

The “Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act” defines ByteDance, a China-based tech company, as a “foreign adversary.” The act aims to prevent such adversaries from “targeting, surveilling and manipulating the American people through online applications like TikTok.”

This would be the first significant nationwide crackdown on TikTok. The U.S. is reported to be the country with the most monthly active users on the platform, with an estimated 102 million Americans using it per month.

The bill has more than a dozen bipartisan co-sponsors and is reportedly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. A Republican-backed bill in 2023 that attempted to ban TikTok faced backlash from some Democrats who argued that it would impede free speech rights.

In this case, however, TikTok would not be banned if it agreed to the divestiture.

Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the Energy and Commerce chair, said on March 5 that the 2023 congressional hearing with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew “confirmed our worst fears — that applications controlled by foreign adversaries, like TikTok, are exploiting and weaponizing Americans’ data and pose a clear national security threat to the United States.”

TikTok responds with in-app message

Before the official vote, many TikTok users were greeted with a message when they opened the app telling them to call their state representatives to protest the bill.

A TikTok spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo News that the notification was directed to users over 18.

"This bill is an outright ban of TikTok, no matter how much the authors try to disguise it,” the spokesperson told Yahoo News. “This legislation will trample the First Amendment rights of 170 million Americans and deprive 5 million small businesses of a platform they rely on to grow and create jobs."

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.

Politico reported that an anonymous House GOP staffer said that “most of the callers are unaware of why they’re even calling” and predicted the office would “easily surpass” receiving “1,000 calls” today because of the pop-up. Rep. Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin also told the outlet that the pop-up is “lying” about the bill, and said, “It’s not a ban, it’s a divestiture.”

Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, told Yahoo News something similar. The institute was established in 2016 to “defend the freedoms of speech and the press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research and public education.”

“This bill raises serious First Amendment concerns,” Jaffer said in a statement. “Congress can protect data privacy and security without banning Americans from accessing one of the world’s most popular communications platforms.”

What will happen to President Biden’s TikTok account?

Some social media users and outlets pointed out the irony that President Biden had joined TikTok on Feb. 11, reportedly attempting to connect with younger voters for the upcoming election.

White House press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed this apparent contradiction on March 6, saying, “We’ve said this before, we’re going to try to meet the American people where they are” about Biden joining on TikTok. She then added, “It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to try to figure out how to protect our national security.”

The White House did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

Regarding how the government should be protecting national security, Jaffer argued that it should be focused on “passing a comprehensive privacy law restricting the kinds of information that TikTok and other platforms can collect.”

“Banning Americans from accessing foreign media should be a last resort,” he concluded.

Some members of Congress have been trying to ban TikTok for years — some city and state governments were successfully able to ban TikTok from being installed on government devices. In 2023, Montana became the first state to ban the app, although the ban was ultimately blocked by a federal judge.

Although the Energy and Commerce Committee's new act was approved, it will likely face legal challenges as well.