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US lawmakers push to ban TikTok on government devices

The US Congress is on the cusp of approving a nationwide ban on using TikTok on government devices because of perceived security risks — thrusting the hugely popular video-sharing platform into a delicate position over Washington’s ties to China.

Congress has unveiled a spending bill on Tuesday that would require the Biden administration to prohibit most uses of TikTok or any other app created by its owner, ByteDance Ltd.  

The measure would follow bans in nearly 20 US states, where Republicans have led the attack against TikTok, arguing that its ownership by Chinese firm ByteDance makes the app unsafe for Americans.

“The fundamental problem is this…TikTok is owned by ByteDance, which is effectively controlled by the Chinese Communist Party,” Republican congressman Mike Gallagher explained to CNN on Sunday.

But what has long been a rallying cry for conservatives is becoming increasingly widespread among their Democratic colleagues, to the point that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday she was in favour of putting the draft to a vote this week.

“This is not a political issue between Republicans and Democrats. This is a United States issue that we need to address nationally,” Ryan McDougle, a Republican state senator from Virginia who has been at the forefront of the issue, told AFP news agency.

Another bill, also introduced last week by representatives from both parties, calls for an outright ban on TikTok in the United States, though it does not seem likely to be taken up for a formal vote for now.

No links to Communist Party

TikTok has worked hard to convince US authorities that it is not a threat and that US data is protected and stored on servers located in the United States.

But following media reports, it has also admitted that employees based in China had access to that data, although the company insisted it was under strict and highly limited circumstances.

“We have not been asked for such data from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). We have not provided US user data to the CCP, nor would we if asked,” the company said in a letter to Congress.

Still, TikTok is fighting furiously to appease Washington and is putting all of its hopes in a long-term security deal with the administration of President Joe Biden that has been under negotiation for two years.

This would be done through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency arm of the US government that assesses the risks of any foreign investment to national security.

A deal would bring “a comprehensive package of measures” and “independent oversight to address concerns about TikTok content recommendation and access to US user data,” the company told AFP in a statement.

The arrangement would be “well beyond what any peer company is doing today,” it added.

But given the growing political pressure, finding common ground with the US government will be difficult, security experts said.

TikTok is consumed by two-thirds of American teens and has become the second-most popular domain in the world, but there’s long been a bipartisan concern in Washington that Beijing would use legal and regulatory power to seize American user data or try to push pro-China narratives or misinformation.

READ MORE: How TikTok’s shaky algorithm fails to protect users from harmful content

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