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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

TikTok bill’s progress slows in the Senate

Shou Chew, chief executive of TikTok makes his way through reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 14, 2024. Chew posted a video last week addressing users, saying a ban of the service would hurt small businesses in the United States. (Kent Nishimura/The New York Times)

By David McCabe and Sapna Maheshwari

After a bill that would force TikTok’s Chinese parent company to sell the app or face a nationwide ban sailed through the House at breakneck speed last week, its progress has slowed in the Senate.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader who determines what legislation gets a vote, has not decided whether to bring the bill to the floor, his spokesperson said. Senators — some of whom have their own versions of bills targeting TikTok — will need to be convinced. Other legislation on the runway could be prioritized. And the process of taking the House bill and potentially rewriting it to suit the Senate could be time-consuming.

Many in the Senate are keeping their cards close to their vest about what they would do on the TikTok measure, even as they said they recognized the House had sent a powerful signal with its vote on the bill, which passed 352-65. The legislation mandates that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, sell its stake in the app within six months or face a ban.

“The lesson of the House vote is that this issue is capable of igniting almost spontaneously in the support that it has,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said in an interview Friday. He said that there could be adjustments made to the bill but that there was bipartisan support to wrest the app from Chinese ownership.

The slowdown in the Senate means that TikTok is likely to face weeks or even months of uncertainty about its fate in the United States. That could result in continued lobbying, alongside maneuvering by the White House, the Chinese government and ByteDance. It is also likely to prompt potential talks about deals — whether real or imagined — while the uncertainty of losing access to the app will hang over the heads of TikTok creators and its 170 million U.S. users.

“Almost everything will slow down in the Senate,” said Nu Wexler, a former Senate aide who worked for Google, Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram. “They’ll need some time to either massage egos or build consensus.”

The House approved the legislation just over a week after it was introduced, passing it with bipartisan support on concerns that the app could endanger American users’ data or be used as a Chinese propaganda tool. The bill also received support from the White House. After saying last week that he opposed the legislation, former President Donald Trump said he now supported it in an interview with Fox News on Friday.

The bill has angered China, with an official saying that the United States had “never found any evidence of TikTok posing a threat to U.S. national security.” China could move to block a sale if the legislation does pass. Some lawmakers have worried that the bill could exceed Congress’ mandate by mentioning TikTok specifically, running afoul of a constitutional ban on targeting individuals in laws. And TikTok has argued that the secretive drafting of the bill and the speed at which it passed in the House suggested that lawmakers were aiming for a ban rather than a sale.

TikTok, which has repeatedly said that it has not and would not share data with the Chinese government or allow any government to influence its algorithmic recommendations, has scrambled to respond to the bill, which took the company by surprise.

Last Wednesday, Shou Chew, TikTok’s Singaporean CEO, posted a video addressing users, saying a ban of the service would hurt small businesses in the United States. He urged them to call their senators and fight back. (The company did the same with House representatives last week.)

TikTok has spent more than $1 billion on an extensive plan known as Project Texas — because of its partnership with Austin, Texas-based Oracle — that aims to handle sensitive U.S. user data separately from the rest of the company’s operations. The plan also provides for independent and government oversight of the platform to monitor for manipulation.

On Friday, searching “KeepTikTok” on the app brought up a banner asking Americans to “Tell your Senator how important TikTok is to you.” The message asked users to input their ZIP codes, then informed them of the correct lawmaker to call.

“We continue educating members of our community about the rushed ban bill, how it would trample their constitutional right of free expression, and how they can make their voices heard,” Alex Haurek, a spokesperson for TikTok, said in a statement.

Senate offices have received hundreds of phone calls and voicemail messages about the bill from TikTok users in recent days, said two Senate aides, who were not authorized to discuss the calls publicly. The aides said many calls appeared to come from underage people.

Some senators have come out in support of the bill. The leaders of the Intelligence Committee, Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement Wednesday that they would support the bill moving forward in the Senate.

Warner, who also has his own TikTok proposal, said Wednesday that he was still asking questions about various elements of the bill but was cheered by the momentum it carried coming out of the House.

“There’s lots of bases that need to be touched,” Warner said. But, he added, it was “hard to think of anything else that’s garnered over 350 votes in a House that’s otherwise not had a record of being fully functioning.”

Others have been more circumspect. Blumenthal said in the interview that the Senate had to review aspects of the bill, adding that a six-month deadline to reach a sale deal might not be long enough.

He also said that he had “heard about a number of very credible and prominent groups” that were interested in buying TikTok but had not yet been reported in the press.

“There is a clear path to achieving all of the interests here — preserving TikTok but simply putting it in different hands,” he added.

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