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Warren, Booker Also Opposed

Wyden and Paul Form Potential Roadblock for TikTok Divestment

Recent House legislation attempting to force ByteDance to divest TikTok raises constitutional issues and doesn’t address broader privacy concerns, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., told reporters Thursday, creating a bipartisan roadblock in the upper chamber.

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Wyden and Paul often unite in blocking legislation they believe violates privacy and civil liberty rights. While ByteDance’s Beijing connection raises national security concerns, the House’s divestment measure creates First Amendment issues, doesn’t deal with the broader privacy problem, and could lead to Saudi Arabian ownership, said Wyden: “I am not going to accept the idea of having one overseer, China, which presents a national security threat, then somehow [have] an arrangement that has all kinds of Saudi fingerprints on it here.”

Wyden said he wants to “get this right,” urging support for his Protecting Americans’ Data from Foreign Surveillance Act (see 2306140044). He introduced that bill with Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Marco Rubio, R-Fla. It would direct the Commerce Department to block data transactions with entities in “high-risk” countries like China. The House on Wednesday unanimously approved TikTok-related legislation that would ban data brokers from transferring “sensitive” U.S. information to “foreign adversaries” such as China (see 2403200063). Wyden said the House bill has similar principles, but his measure with Rubio is more “comprehensive.”

The House’s divestment bill is unconstitutional because it violates the First and Fifth amendments, Paul told reporters: “I doubt I’m going to change my mind on something the Constitution says.” Paul said the government can’t seize property from a private company based on speculation about ByteDance's ties to Beijing. He noted TikTok is 60% owned by international investors. Wyden and Paul were evasive when asked if they would block the legislation on the floor. “We’ll see,” said Paul.

Congress isn’t seizing property, said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.: It’s attempting to sever the link between TikTok and Beijing. He said young, threatening TikTok users contacted his office about the legislation this week, and reports show the company has urged users to contact Congress. That tactic illustrates TiKTok “probably needs a new government relations operation.”

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., told us they have concerns about the divestment bill. Foreign ownership of media is a legitimate issue, but Congress needs a solution that applies to the “behavior” of social media companies across the board, said Warren. She urged support for her legislation (see 2209160053) with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

My concern is a narrow bill that doesn’t address the real, larger issue,” said Booker. “It doesn’t address the harms that social media is doing and how it’s impacting our young children.” The Senate should do more than approve a bill focused on one company, Booker added.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, told us that after sitting in Tuesday’s national security briefing on TikTok, he was satisfied the legislation wasn’t crafted out of a “general frustration” about social media. “I wanted to be satisfied that this is a real national security concern and not a cooked up one,” he said. “I’m there. ... We don’t allow MSNBC to be owned by foreign [adversaries]. We don’t allow radio stations to be owned by foreign [adversaries]. I don’t see how this is any different.” As a Senate Commerce Committee member, Schatz said he supports holding a committee hearing and markup. Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., are discussing a potential joint hearing.

Warner told reporters Thursday he rejects the premise that the Senate is bound to a lengthy process if it doesn’t bring the bill straight to the floor. The briefing showed unanimous consent that this is a critical national security issue, he said.

Whatever process gets us an outcome and a good outcome is the one I’m interested in,” said Rubio. “I always prefer committee hearings.”

Cantwell told reporters Thursday she would prefer any public TikTok hearing to be done jointly with Intelligence “if it’s possible” because there’s a clear “intersection of issues.” “We’ll have to find out from” Intelligence leaders “whether they think that might make it more complicated” and if it’s not feasible, “how to proceed” independently, she said.

A public TikTok hearing should examine “broader policies that are at stake” and more technical matters, Cantwell said. “The technical side of it is important but there’s only so much on the technical side you can talk about in an open hearing. But there are enough concepts that you could give people an idea” of what’s at stake. “The challenges on most of these issues related to social media platforms and social expression issues have been about” free speech in the past, she said.

I think it rises to the level of something we should move faster on,” said Sen. John Hickenloooper, D-Colo., citing China’s influence over young TikTok users. The briefing showed “incontrovertible” evidence of China’s access to TikTok data. Everyone in the briefing was “very concerned” about China’s control over TikTok, said Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

The intelligence community should declassify information from Tuesday’s briefing so the public fully understands the “national security issues at stake” and China’s spying activity, Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., wrote Thursday in a letter to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines: “TikTok is a weapon in the hands of the Chinese government, and poses an active risk to our democratic institutions and national security.” The DNI didn’t comment.