Lawmakers introduce bill that would punish app stores for hosting TikTok

A TikTok logo surrounded by jazzy lines and colorful accents
Illustration by Nick Barclay / The Verge

After a long reprieve from serious congressional scrutiny, lawmakers are taking another crack at getting TikTok to sever ties from its Chinese parent company, ByteDance.

The leaders of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, chair Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), announced the introduction of the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act on Tuesday. The bill, which has 19 lawmakers signed on so far, would make it illegal to distribute apps controlled by ByteDance, including TikTok, unless they sever ties from the Chinese tech giant.

If enacted, the bill would impose a civil penalty on app stores and web hosting services that distribute TikTok and other covered services, unless the app is separated from Chinese ownership. The penalty for an app store that violates the law would be calculated by multiplying the number of US users that “accessed, maintained or, or updated” the foreign adversary app by $5,000. The bill would be enforced by the US attorney general.

It also creates a process for the president to designate other social media companies from foreign adversary countries like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea as subject to the bill — meaning apps owned by designated companies that are distributed in the US would need to sever ties to continue operating there.

It’s the first big legislative push in Congress to act on national security concerns posed by TikTok’s ownership since the Senate introduced the RESTRICT Act last year. That bill came after the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled TikTok’s CEO about its ties to China, which marked the peak of momentum on Capitol Hill around the idea of a TikTok ban or forced divestment.

Yet concerns over the RESTRICT Act’s reach and the authority it would grant to the executive branch eventually stalled movement on the issue.

The new legislation was crafted in an attempt to avoid potential constitutional concerns. For example, though it names ByteDance, it is tailored to avoid being seen as a penalty on an individual company. That’s in part because the bill allows for a 165-day period for ByteDance to avoid a ban on its apps if it divests them during that time; it also creates a process by which it could be applied to other apps.

While TikTok is owned by a Chinese company, it has maintained that it keeps US user data on servers outside of the country and is working on plans to get US data even further out of reach from China-based ByteDance employees. Many lawmakers have expressed concern that China’s national security law could compel ByteDance to hand over information on US users if they have access to it.

Despite bipartisan concern, it remains a major question if any action to divest or ban TikTok can reignite momentum during an election year — especially one where TikTok is a useful tool for candidates hoping to secure their seats.