"Do we really want to emulate Chinese speech bans?" said US Republican Senator Rand Paul.
A bid to vote on legislation that would ban TikTok from operating in the United States was blocked in the Senate on Wednesday, leaving lawmakers still trying to figure out what action, if any, is appropriate against the social media app.
In trying to force a vote - a move that rarely works in the Senate, since only one senator’s objection can block it - Republican Missouri Senator Josh Hawley called TikTok “digital fentanyl” and argued it could give the Chinese government access to data from 150 million American users.
His bill would block and prohibit US transactions with TikTok’s parent company, Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., within 30 days. The bill “sends the message to Communist China that you cannot buy us,” Hawley said.
But a fellow Republican, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, objected to Hawley’s motion, arguing that trying to ban an app would violate the Constitution and anger the millions of voters who use it. “Speech is protected whether you like it or not,” Paul said.
Hawley’s effort to bring attention to the issue comes a week after a combative House hearing in which lawmakers from both parties grilled TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew over his company's ties to China’s communist government, data security and harmful content on the app.
Chew attempted to assure lawmakers that the hugely popular video-sharing app prioritises user safety and should not be banned due to its Chinese connections. But the tense standoff gave new momentum to Hawley and other lawmakers who say it should be banned or limited.
The Missouri senator said Congress “should act decisively to ban TikTok directly”. Other lawmakers have considered broader approaches, though there is no widespread consensus on any piece of legislation.
There is broad Senate support for bipartisan legislation that does not specifically call out TikTok but would give the Commerce Department the power to review and potentially restrict foreign threats to technology platforms.
The White House has backed that bill, but it is unclear if it will be brought up in the Senate or if it could gather much support among House Republicans.
Another bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida would, like Hawley’s bill, ban US economic transactions with TikTok, but would also create a new framework for the executive branch to block any foreign apps deemed hostile.
Those pushing new legislation point to agreement on a bill passed in December that banned TikTok from most government devices.
But despite the bipartisan desires, the varying proposals underscore how difficult it could be to find agreement on an unprecedented effort to ban or scale back an app that is used by millions of Americans.
Former president Donald Trump's attempts to ban TikTok in 2020 were blocked by US courts.
Paul said trying to ban an app like TikTok is a slippery slope. He’s had videos censored by YouTube, he said, but he still believes the company has a right to exist.
“I despise these people, but I’m not going to vote to ban them,” he said. “We don’t ban things that are unpopular in the United States”.