Republicans need to say no to Yass on TikTok

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Last week, House Republicans and Democrats came together to unanimously move the “Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act” forward for a House vote. This bill addresses an unprecedented threat to our nation’s security, children, and democracy, i.e., the Chinese government’s control over TikTok.

The Act requires TikTok to divest out of companies that are directed by the Chinese government, in this case ByteDance. If TikTok doesn’t divest out of ByteDance, it will not be allowed to operate in the U.S. and American hosting services and app stores could not host or distribute the app in U.S. Plain and simple.

Frankly, TikTok’s relationship with ByteDance has been an issue for the U.S. almost since its inception.

Since President Trump first pursued a ban of the app in 2020, we have found out so much more about the Chinese government’s control over ByteDance and, by extension, TikTok. We know that ByteDance has had an internal Chinese Communist Party committee as part of its governance structure since 2017 to align with Beijing’s policies. We know ByteDance agreed to promote the credibility of Chinese police for the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Press and Propaganda Bureau.

We are also getting a much better understanding of ByteDance control of TikTok. Let’s start with its leadership. TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew served as ByteDance’s CFO for most of 2021 and before that was president of international operations for Xiaomi Technology, a software developer the Pentagon considers a “Communist Chinese military company.” Lest we forget TikTok’s now infamous “Master Admin” based in Beijing after TikTok’s representatives promised under oath in Congress that no one in China could access Americans’ data. Or the fact that ByteDance has admitted to tracking at least two U.S.-based journalists via TikTok. What’s more, reports show that ByteDance had in fact intended to use TikTok to monitor specific American citizens. Worse, we know that ByteDance still has access to U.S. user data.

Against this background, it makes sense as to why Congress is moving quickly on the bill. What’s more, this bill didn’t pass out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee with slim margins or split among party lines; it was unanimous—50 yeas to 0 nays. Better yet, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) is bringing it to the floor for a full vote from the House to get it over to the Senate. If things couldn’t look any brighter for the bill’s chances, President Biden stated that “if they pass it, I’ll sign it.”

Given these results, one would think that passing it was a breeze. Wrong!

Leading to the vote, Hill offices were flooded with calls from disgruntled TikTok users (mostly children) who threatened everything from suicide to assassinating sitting members of congress if “they take their TikTok away.” The users’ reactions to the bill were akin to taking a drug away from an addict—not helping TikTok’s case that it isn’t, as Vivek Ramaswamy put it, “digital fentanyl.”  

However, there was one call members were getting that didn’t get as much media attention. One that could have a serious impact in determining whether this House bill lives or dies. It’s the ones from Jeffery Yass.

Jeffery Yass is a billionaire donor to a slew of Republican campaigns.

Another interesting fact about Mr. Yass is his interest in TikTok’s parent company ByteDance in which he has billions of dollars tied up. And, as it turns out, he’s not afraid to flex his muscle when those billions of dollars are in threat. A few outlets reported that Jeffery Yass personally called House members threatening to pull funding from their campaigns if the bill passes.

Thankfully, that call did nothing to dissuade members of the House’s Energy and Commerce Committee from moving the ball forward, but, as is true with all bills, the gateway is narrow and the road is difficult to become law. The legislation still needs a full floor vote in the House and then it needs to go over to the Senate. Worse, not only is there no indication that Jeffery Yass will stop his threats, he has also hired a star-studded Republican lobbying team—spearheaded by Kellyanne Conway—to lead the charge in killing the bill.

Before taking his call, members should remember—as the House Energy and Commerce Committee members did—that government’s fundamental goal is to protect us from foreign adversaries. TikTok is a threat to not only our national security, but our children and democracy. We saw firsthand what this app does to kids with their manic calls threatening self-harm just at the mere thought of taking it away. As for our democracy, the evidence of the Chinese government using it to spy on American journalists and citizens are so apparent that it has become a banality of evil. 

Frankly, there’s too much on the line for us to adhere to the whims and tantrums of a billionaire. For the sake of democracy, ignore his calls and leave his texts on “read.”

Joel Thayer is president and board member of Digital Progress Institute.

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