Trump and Biden are muddling the politics of a TikTok ban

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Trump, Biden throw a wrench in Congress’s TikTok plans

Lawmakers pushing for legislation to tackle alleged security risks posed by TikTok and other foreign-linked apps are facing an unexpected hurdle: the leaders of their own parties.

A House committee last week advanced a bipartisan measure to require that the video-sharing platform either be sold off or banned from the United States, the most threatening congressional attempt to date to either splinter TikTok from its China-based parent company or ban it entirely. Republican House leaders have indicated they plan to bring it to a floor vote this week, most likely Wednesday.

But in the past few days, President Biden and former president Donald Trump have each weighed in on the bill in ways that could confound the politics of the situation. Biden said Friday he would sign the measure into law if passed, after previously supporting alternative approaches. Meanwhile, Trump — who tried to ban TikTok as president — has surprised some by voicing opposition to a ban, something both critics and supporters of the legislation said it could accomplish. 

Their conflicting remarks are likely to generate pressure against both GOP TikTok hawks pushing for a ban and skeptical Democrats who have resisted it.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have led some of the most aggressive proposals targeting TikTok, including separate bills from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) explicitly targeting the app and giving the federal government more power to ban it outright. While some have garnered Democratic support, it’s been limited.

Republicans likely thought they had a like-minded champion in Trump, who signed executive orders near the end of his presidency calling for TikTok’s ban. But on Thursday night, Trump posted to his social network Truth Social that getting rid of TikTok would only help Facebook, which he called a “true Enemy of the People!” He repeated the warning in a CNBC interview on Monday.

The stance took some China hawks by surprise and, for the party, was inconveniently timed: At the time his post was published, Sen. Katie Boyd Britt (R-Ala.) was declaring in her Republican rebuttal of Biden’s State of the Union address that the Chinese government was using TikTok to “conquer America” by “conquering the minds of our next generation.” 

But Trump’s TikTok reversal was not as sudden as it seemed. 

A former Trump aide told The Washington Post in 2022 that Trump’s antagonism toward TikTok had faded by the time of the 2020 election, when he learned that internal polls suggested banning the app would hurt him at the ballot box. Trump has said little about the app in the years since. But his comment on Monday that “there are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it” would seem to support the idea that he sees it as a losing issue.

The former president also has some ties to the app. David Urban, a Trump campaign adviser in 2016 and 2020, has worked as a lobbyist for TikTok in recent years. More recently, Trump’s former senior aide Kellyanne Conway has advocated for TikTok in Congress. She said on Saturday in a statement to Politico, which first reported her work, that “alienating 170 million monthly U.S. users” would be “draconian” and “ill-advised.”

Some — including longtime Trump stalwart Stephen K. Bannon — have also highlighted Trump’s recent financial support from Jeff Yass, a billionaire hedge fund manager whose Susquehanna International Group was an early investor in TikTok. Yass is one of the biggest donors to Club for Growth, a conservative funding giant that has rekindled its relationship with Trump after a long estrangement. 

Key Democratic lawmakers also have expressed concerns with the House bill for directly targeting TikTok.

Instead, some have floated alternative proposals that seek to give federal officials more authority to counter apps linked to foreign adversaries more broadly. That includes a bipartisan bill led by Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and a yet-to-be-unveiled proposal from Senate Commerce Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

Both of those efforts previously have received support from the Biden administration, with the White House last year calling on Congress to “quickly” pass the Warner bill and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo expressing support for Cantwell’s efforts. Liberal Democrats have added another layer of complication to the political dynamics by opposing many of the efforts over concerns they infringe on users’ free speech rights. 

Biden rallying around the House’s TikTok bill while Trump seemingly undercuts it could complicate its already messy path to passage on Capitol Hill.

Adding to the confusion is that Biden’s reelection campaign joined TikTok last month — a move that Warner said sent a “mixed message.” Trump doesn’t have a TikTok account. But his daughter, Ivanka Trump, joined last month, via a verified account that has yet to post. 

And then, of course, there are all the other obstacles: China’s opposition to any sale of TikTok, slumping support for a ban among the American public, the lack of companion legislation in the Senate, and the potential conflicts with the First Amendment. Last week TikTok took the unconventional step of pushing its users to call their representatives to oppose the measure. Phone lines were flooded across Capitol Hill. 

Malaysia: the surprise winner from US-China chip wars (Financial Times)

Elon Musk’s xAI to open-source its Grok chatbot, in latest swipe at OpenAI (Wall Street Journal)

Apple to allow iOS app downloads direct from websites in the EU (The Verge)

Google is getting thousands of deepfake porn complaints (Wired)

Automakers are sharing consumers’ driving behavior with insurance companies (New York Times)

Airbnb is banning indoor security cameras (The Verge)

Trump asked Elon Musk if he wanted to buy Truth Social (By Josh Dawsey, Drew Harwell and Jonathan O’Connell)

Parents have a problem with screen time, too, teens say (By Heather Kelly)

  • The Institute for Rebooting Social Media at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center hosts a workshop, “Building Accountability Infrastructures for Social Media and LLMs,” today at 9:30 a.m.
  • The House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology, and Government Innovation holds a hearing, “Addressing Real Harm Done by Deepfakes,” today at 2 p.m.
  • ITIF holds an event, “Transatlantic Innovation and Competitiveness: Europe’s New Agenda vs. the CHIPS and Science Act,” Wednesday at 1 p.m.
  • The Brookings Institution holds an event, “The dangers posed by AI and disinformation during elections,” Wednesday at 2 p.m.
  • Public Knowledge holds an event at SXSW, “AI in the Public Interest: Credit, Consent, and Compensation,” Wednesday at 3:30 p.m.
  • The Federal Communications Commission holds its March open meeting on cybersecurity labels for smart products; cable and satellite TV pricing; and how to define “high-speed” internet on Thursday at 10:30 a.m.

Thats all for today — thank you so much for joining us! Make sure to tell others to subscribe to The Technology 202 here. Get in touch with Cristiano (via email or social media) and Will (via email or social media) for tips, feedback or greetings!

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