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House votes to force TikTok to divest from Chinese parent company or face a ban

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The House today overwhelmingly passed a bill that would force TikTok to divest from its Chinese parent company or face a ban in the U.S. Bipartisan supporters of the bill say Congress needs to step in because TikTok is a threat to national security. TikTok pushes back against this argument, saying that banning the social media platform amounts to a flagrant violation of free speech. The legislation will now head to the Senate. NPR congressional correspondent Deirdre Walsh joins us now to talk about all this. Hi, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So why do lawmakers want this bill now?

WALSH: Well, lawmakers from both parties who support the bill argue users data privacy is not protected. It's collected and shared with Chinese officials. They say they influence the content that's pushed out to U.S. users. They say the app has targeted journalist and interfered in elections. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, testified this week about his security concerns. Intel officials held classified briefings for House members on their assessments. We haven't seen all the details of those assessments.

But these lawmakers say the app that's used by over 170 million Americans shouldn't be controlled by a foreign government they say is hostile to U.S. interests. So this bill requires the company, ByteDance, to divest within six months or be banned on all U.S. app platforms. Mike Gallagher, who chairs the House Select Committee on China, he's the lead Republican sponsor. He pushed back on the idea that this would amount to a total ban.

MIKE GALLAGHER: What we're after is not a ban. It's a forced separation. And the TikTok user experience can continue and improve so long as ByteDance doesn't own the company.

WALSH: I talked to Raja Krishnamoorthi. He's the top Democrat who helped write the bill, and he says that while TikTok downplays the impact of its owners, he says the top editor of ByteDance is a secretary in the Chinese Communist Party.

FADEL: So what has the opposition to the bill been like?

WALSH: It's been a pretty intense lobbying campaign. In the last week, lawmakers say their offices have been flooded with calls from users who are worried about the future of the app. TikTok launched a push notice to its adult users. It linked their location data on their phone to identify their lawmaker and connected them by phone to the offices. Gallagher told me there were younger callers that were crying when they called into office, and unfortunately, one actually threatened suicide if there's a ban. Opponents are raising big concerns that this is being rushed through the House, and some members don't understand the impact that this could have. One of those is Florida Democrat Maxwell Frost. He's 27, the youngest member of Congress.

MAXWELL FROST: I think that it is a violation of people's First Amendment right. TikTok is a place where people 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.

WALSH: TikTok declined an interview with NPR, but a spokesman maintained the bill would effectively be a total ban and strip away free expression from users, harm businesses who use the app, and they oppose the sale of ByteDance.

FADEL: You know, it's an election year. So I guess I have to ask, what are the presidential campaign saying about all this?

WALSH: President Biden's campaign is on TikTok, but the White House has said if a bill gets to his desk, he will sign it. Former President Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, actually proposed a ban on TikTok in 2020 when he was in the White House, but he recently reversed himself. He said he still has privacy concerns about the app, but he's worried if it shuts down, users are going to move to Facebook. And in an interview on CNBC this week, he called Facebook the enemy of the people.

If the bill makes it through the Senate and Biden signs it, it is expected to end up in court. TikTok has filed lawsuits to fight off other efforts to ban the app, and federal courts so far have sided with their argument that blocking the app violates users' First Amendment rights.

FADEL: NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.