U.S. Republican Senator Rand Paul on Wednesday blocked a bid to fast-track a ban of popular Chinese-owned social media app TikTok, which more than 150 million Americans use, citing concerns about free speech and uneven treatment of social media companies.
"I think we should beware of those who use fear to coax Americans to relinquish our liberties," Paul said on the Senate floor. "Every accusation of data gathering that has been attributed to TikTok could also be attributed to domestic big tech companies."
Republican Senator Josh Hawley had sought unanimous consent for a TikTok ban bill. "It protects the American people and it sends a message to Communist China that you cannot buy us," Hawley said, adding the app is spying on Americans.
"If Republicans want to continuously lose elections for a generation they should pass this bill to ban TikTok -- a social media app used by 150 million people, primarily young Americans," Paul said on the Senate floor. "Do we really want to emulate Chinese speech bans?... We're going to be just like China and ban speech we're afraid of?"
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said last week he expects the house will take up a bill to address TikTok but the timing is unclear. It is also not clear what a final bill to address TikTok might look like.
A small but growing number of Democrats and Republicans have raised concerns, citing free speech and other issues and have objected to legislation targeting TikTok as overly broad.
TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew appeared before Congress last week and faced tough questions about national security concerns over the ByteDance-owned app.
Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a TikTok video on Friday opposed a TikTok ban, calling it "unprecedented" and said Congress has not gotten classified TikTok briefings. "It just doesn't feel right to me," she said.
Last week, three Democrats in the House of Representatives opposed a TikTok ban, as do free speech groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration demanded TikTok's Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a U.S. ban. Then President Donald Trump
's attempts in 2020 to ban TikTok were blocked by U.S. courts. TikTok says it has spent more than $1.5 billion on rigorous data security efforts and rejects spying allegations.
Many Democrats argue Congress should pass comprehensive privacy legislation covering all social media sites, not just TikTok.
Senators Mark Warner, a Democrat, and John Thune, a Republican, have proposed the RESTRICT Act, which now has 22 Senate cosponsors, to give the Commerce Department power to impose restrictions up to and including banning TikTok and other technologies that pose national security risks. It would apply to foreign technologies from China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba.
Paul said the bill "would basically be a limitless authority for the president to ban speech."
A growing number of conservatives oppose the measure. Former Republican Representative Justin Amash said the "RESTRICT Act isn’t about banning TikTok; it’s about controlling you. It gives broad powers to the executive branch, with few checks, and will be abused in every way you can imagine."
A Warner spokesperson said, "To be extremely clear, this legislation is aimed squarely at companies like Kaspersky, Huawei and TikTok that create systemic risks to the United States’ national security – not at individual users."