Rand Paul blocks Josh Hawley’s TikTok ban in GOP split


Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) blocked an effort by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to fast-track legislation he introduced that would ban the popular Chinese-owned social media app TikTok nationwide.

On Wednesday evening, Hawley took to the Senate floor to ask for unanimous consent to begin work on his “No TikTok on United States Devices Act.” Although Republicans have long said TikTok should be limited, Paul said he objected, arguing Hawley’s ban amounts to an attack on the First Amendment.

“To those who are worried that the Chinese government might somehow now have access to millions of American teenagers’ information — realize that all social media sucks up personal data that people voluntarily provide,” Paul said. “If you’re going to ban TikTok, what’s next?”

While introducing his request, Hawley said TikTok presents a threat and called for protecting “the security of every single American whose personal lives, whose personal data, whose personal security is in danger from the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.”

A growing number of U.S. lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern over the application’s access to data from its more than 150 million users in the United States. Hawley’s bill comes in the wake of allegations that the app is spying for Beijing and worries it could be used to spread propaganda. TikTok chief executive Shou Zi Chew denied the accusations last week in a five-hour House hearing.

There have been several efforts to restrict TikTok usage in the United States in recent months. The app is now banned on federal devices as well as many states’ government devices and those of some universities. Some foreign governments, including France and Britain, have also followed suit.

Separate from Hawley’s proposed legislation, a bipartisan, White House-backed bill known as the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act, was introduced in the Senate this month. The bill would give the Commerce Department broad authority to ban or restrict TikTok and other apps rooted in foreign countries. It also mentions Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay, both of which are Chinese-owned.

The Biden administration has pressured TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their stakes in the company, though before last week’s House hearing, Beijing said it would strongly oppose any forced sale.

The Washington Post tech reporters break down the many challenges facing TikTok as Washington raises concerns about the potential risks of Chinese-owned tech. (Video: Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)

Paul’s free-speech argument comes a week after three Democrats made a rare defense of TikTok on the steps of the Capitol. “Our First Amendment gives us the right to speak freely and to communicate freely, and TikTok as a platform has created a community and a space for free speech for 150 million Americans and counting,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) said. Bowman told The Post that more Democrats are speaking up for TikTok to counter Republican “fearmongering” against the app.

In explaining his First Amendment objection, Paul said banning TikTok would lead Republicans to “continuously lose elections for a generation,” and pointed out that many GOP lawmakers accuse domestic social media companies of censoring conservatives and portray themselves as advocates of free speech.

“Without a hint of irony, many of these same conservatives now rail against censorship, while advocating for censorship against social media apps they worry are influenced by the Chinese,” he said.

Hawley said that the First Amendment does not protect the “right to spy on American citizens.”

TikTok is owned by the Beijing-based Chinese technology company ByteDance and has headquarters in Singapore and Los Angeles.

Many Western governments are concerned that Chinese authorities could force TikTok to share sensitive information from users under laws such as a 2017 Chinese National Intelligence law, which says “any organization” must cooperate with state intelligence work, according to the Associated Press.

TikTok has touted “Project Texas,” which would store new American user data in the United States, as a remedy to these concerns, though not all lawmakers are convinced.

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