On Tuesday a bipartisan group of a dozen US senators introduced a bill to authorize the Commerce Department to ban information and communications technology products and services deemed threats to national security.
The Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act [PDF] makes absolutely no bones about its aspirations. It comes a week after the US House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to advance a similar bill called the DATA Act [PDF] – for Deterring America’s Technological Adversaries.
Say what you will about US Congress, it has a gift for acronyms.
We’re SURPRISED, or Slightly Underwhelmed Regarding Possible Regulatory Intervention Sold as Exigent Defense. Similar efforts in the past have been blocked by the courts as overbroad and insufficiently substantiated.
The RESTRICT Act is a response to concerns that foreign-owned apps – particularly those run by Chinese firms, like ByteDance’s TikTok, Tencent’s WeChat, and Alibaba’s Alipay – could be used for surveillance or subversion.
“Today, the threat that everyone is talking about is TikTok, and how it could enable surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party, or facilitate the spread of malign influence campaigns in the US,” said Senator Mark Warner (D-VA), one of the sponsors of the bill, in a statement.
“Before TikTok, however, it was Huawei and ZTE, which threatened our nation’s telecommunications networks. And before that, it was Russia’s Kaspersky Lab, which threatened the security of government and corporate devices.
“We need a comprehensive, risk-based approach that proactively tackles sources of potentially dangerous technology before they gain a foothold in America, so we aren’t playing Whac-A-Mole and scrambling to catch up once they’re already ubiquitous.”
White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan issued a statement endorsing the legislation.
“This bill presents a systematic framework for addressing technology-based threats to the security and safety of Americans,” he said, noting that it would make it easier for the US to respond to transactions involving countries of concern.
One such transaction was ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly – a Shanghai-based short video social network that became popular with US teens. Musical.ly was merged into TikTok in 2018.
In 2019, at the request of US lawmakers, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) – an interagency body consisting of nine cabinet members, among others – began reviewing the Musical.ly deal to determine whether it threatened national security. A year later, the CFIUS review was being described as an inquiry into TikTok, code which the Trump administration threatened to ban.
As of last month, the CFIUS inquiry had yet to be completed, and senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS) wrote [PDF] to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking for the investigation to be wrapped up and for restrictions to be imposed – such as forcing ByteDance to sell off TikTok’s US operations.
The Senate bill would ultimately allow the Commerce Secretary to ban entire communications platforms, which would have profound implications for our constitutional right to free speech
Citing recent revelations that TikTok employees tracked the locations of US journalists, the two senators said, “At a minimum, CFIUS should ensure that executive decision making about the platform is based in the United States and fully free from coercive influence from Beijing. It must also ensure that decisions about, and access to, all personal data, algorithms, and content moderation relating to American users is out of the reach or influence of the Chinese government.”
The American Civil Liberties Union voiced opposition to both bills, because they would limit free speech.
“Unfortunately, the Senate bill is a roundabout route to the same bad place reached more directly by the House bill,” lamented Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at ACLU, in a statement. “The Senate bill would ultimately allow the Commerce Secretary to ban entire communications platforms, which would have profound implications for our constitutional right to free speech.”
Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a tech lobbying group, opined via Twitter that the White House’s endorsement of the Senate bill signals that TikTok’s “Project Texas” – a deal to shift the company’s US data to Oracle Cloud servers in the US – is unlikely to meet CFIUS approval. He considers the White House statement to be a signal to ByteDance that it needs to sell off TikTok’s US operations.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment. ®