Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday included language in a must-pass spending bill that would, for the first time, ban federal employees from downloading the TikTok app to their government-issued phones and other devices, the latest sign of worries about the app’s Chinese ownership.
The prohibition of TikTok on government-issued devices is largely symbolic — TikTok’s U.S. audience is estimated at more than 100 million, while government-issued devices are far fewer — but it comes as as many as 18 Republican-led state governors have imposed similar restrictions in recent weeks. Some lawmakers, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), have called for a all out ban on the app’s use in the United States.
“I think the people are catching up to the fact that China is a hostile power,” said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noting that China has banned American-developed apps like Facebook and Twitter.
“We don’t owe China any favors,” he added. “TikTok is caught up in that — guilty or not.”
TikTok is already banned from government devices at the White House, most branches of the military and several federal agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security and State.
TikTok called the decision to include the measure a “political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests.”
“We’re disappointed that Congress has moved to ban TikTok on government devices — a political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests — rather than encouraging the Administration to conclude its national security review,” of the app, said Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokesperson, in a email to The Washington Post.
Vanessa Pappas, chief operating officer of TikTok, a subsidiary of Chinese company ByteDance, told Congress in September that the company’s Chinese employees abide by strict access controls over U.S. data and do not provide information to China.
TikTok has been negotiating an agreement with the Committeee on Foreign Investment in the United States.
The provision to bar TikTok from government devices was included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the U.S. government through most of 2023. Top Democrats and Republicans unveiled the bill early Tuesday; Congress must pass the measure by Friday to avoid a partial government shutdown.
Under the bill, the White House Office of Management and Budget would have 60 days “to develop standards and guidelines for executive agencies requiring the removal” of TikTok from federal devices.
The inclusion of the TikTok provision underscored the growing bipartisan anti-China fervor in Congress and growing Republican efforts to try to paint the Biden administration as week on China. Just last week, the Senate unanimously backed a bill to prohibit TikTok on government devices. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who introduced the legislation, called TikTok “a Trojan Horse for the Chinese Communist Party” that is causing major security risks for the U.S.
“After years of talk, the TikTok ban will be the first major strike against Big Tech enacted into law,” he tweeted Tuesday after the bill was released.
Leaders on both sides of the aisle, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), backed the legislation.
But even many who agree that Chinese espionage should be a concern think tthat banning the app from government devices does little. Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that over the past 20 years China’s cyber espionage has been aggressive and should be a legitimate concern.
“So is there a reason to be worried? Yes,” Lewis said. “Does [the proposed ban] change the security picture? Not that much.”