‘Clear Threat’: Critics Raise Concern ‘RESTRICT’ Act Empowers Biden While Leaving Chinese ‘Spyware’ In Place

‘Clear Threat’: Critics Raise Concern ‘RESTRICT’ Act Empowers Biden While Leaving Chinese ‘Spyware’ In Place
Posterity awaits. TikTok via NBC News

By Diana Glebova

The RESTRICT Act — one of the bills currently in the Senate which could ban TikTok — has the potential to provide President Joe Biden with “new authority” while doing nothing to stop the Chinese-based app, Republican lawmakers and digital rights activists warn.

The White House has endorsed the legislation and has urged Congress to send it to Biden’s desk, applauding the bipartisan efforts of Democratic Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Republican South Dakota Sen. John Thune.

The endorsement came shortly after the Chinese-based app hired SKDK — a PR firm filled with former senior figures in the Biden administration — to help with policy communications, Politico reported. White House senior adviser Anita Dunn, who is a founding partner of SKDK, encouraged allies to use the app before Biden’s State of the Union address, according to the outlet.

White House spokesperson Andrew Bates told Politico that Dunn’s directions were not new: “we work with outside supporters to spread our message on the major social media platforms, including TikTok.”

TikTok has become a key element of the Biden administration’s strategy towards targeting younger voters. The White House has invited influencers from TikTok to spread Biden’s agenda, and his 2020 campaign relied on the app.

Unlike other bills currently in Congress, the RESTRICT Act does not mention “TikTok” by name, and instead establishes a framework to counter transactions between persons in the U.S. and “foreign adversaries.” The measure gives the Commerce Department the power to decide who is deemed a “foreign adversary,” albeit with a possibility for Congressional overrule. It also allows the department to apply “mitigation” measures against “information and communication technology products and services” that “pose undue or unacceptable risk.”

The bill’s language, which critics say is too “vague,” includes a provision for the secretary of commerce to “prioritize evaluation” of wireless local area networks; mobile networks; satellite payloads; satellite operations and control; cable access points; wireline access points; core networking systems; long-, short-, and back-haul networks; and edge computer platforms.

Republican Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who has proposed his own legislation specifically targeting TikTok, criticized the bill for not going directly after the Chinese-based app and giving “open-ended authority to federal bureaucrats.”

“We should act decisively to ban TikTok directly. We shouldn’t give new open-ended authority to federal bureaucrats. We should target this threat specifically,” Hawley said.

Fox News host Jesse Waters pressed Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham on whether the “garbage” bill is a way to “spy” on American citizens.

Graham, despite being a proponent of the bill, said he “doesn’t support” the RESTRICT Act, and that he would “come back” to Watters once he read what was in the legislation.

The reach of the bill has also caused critics to call the RESTRICT Act a “Patriot Act for the internet,” expressing concern that the bill would give new broad powers to the executive, and could potentially criminalize VPNs and cryptocurrency transactions. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a crypto advocacy organization, and other digital rights advocates have criticized the bill for granting too wide of powers to the executive branch.

The RESTRICT Act would “not do nearly enough to truly protect our private information,” and has “undefined mitigation measures coupled with a vague enforcement provision,” EFF said, arguing instead for “consumer data privacy legislation.”

“This bill certainly is troubling in that it would grant a great amount of power to the executive branch. That should be unsettling in any context: recent examples around the world, from Israel to China, are showing us the risks that arise from upsetting checks and balances to favor executive power,” Riana Pfefferkorn, researcher scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory, told VICE.

“We are very concerned that an overbroad interpretation of those powers could be exploited in order to ban Americans from using entire classes of technologies, even when no foreign adversary has an actual proprietary interest in the technology as a whole,” the Coin Center, a cryptocurrency advocacy center, said.

Warner responded to the concerns of private citizens by saying the bill has “no ability to have any personal penalty,” even for those who use VPNs, and is “directed at companies.”

Warner and Thune have also defended their legislation by claiming that it does not apply to private users and only applies to a short list of nations: China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.

The bill directly appoints the secretary of commerce, however, to change who is on the list of “foreign adversaries.”

Other Republican lawmakers have pointed to the RESTRICT Act being a way for Biden to not act on TikTok.

Republican Indiana Rep. Jim Banks expressed skepticism of the bill, calling it a “half-measure,” since the measure doesn’t mandate it specifically.

“The RESTRICT Act won’t stop Chinese Communist Party espionage. Congress needs the finish what the Trump administration started and pass a simple bill that bans TikTok. The Biden administration is endorsing this half-measure to avoid taking on China and their Big Tech allies,” Banks told the Caller.

Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio argued that the bill merely “gives the illusion of action.”

“The White House has the power to deal with TikTok,” Rubio told Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade. “They don’t want to do anything on TikTok. What this bill does is it gives them the ability to say, ‘Congress passed something, and it’s bipartisan,’ and it gives the illusion of action, but it’s not action.”

TikTok itself has said it prefers the RESTRICT Act over the other bills currently in Congress, the Washington Examiner reported.

Michael Sobolik, an American Foreign Policy Institute fellow in Indo-Pacific Studies, said leaving the decision to ban TikTok up to Biden is “risky” because Democrats are liable to not ban the app.

“TikTok is in an all-out blitz to intimidate Democrats. They’ve hired a left-leaning PR firm with former administration and congressional staffers, and they’re targeting President Biden with one threat: banning TikTok would be political suicide for the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the president’s Commerce Secretary, Gina Raimondo, agrees. We’ve also seen progressives in Congress come to TikTok’s defense over the past week. Leaving the final decision of TikTok’s fate to the administration’s discretion is risky and could allow the president to talk tough while acting weak,” Sobolik told the Caller.

Thune argued that the RESTRICT Act is a means of establishing a “methodological approach” to foreign technologies that pose “national security risks.” The bill has received bipartisan support from 22 senators, CBS News reported.

“Congress needs to stop taking a piecemeal approach when it comes to technology from adversarial nations that pose national security risks. Our country needs a process in place to address these risks, and this bill would establish a methodical approach to address the threats posed by technology platforms – like TikTok – from foreign adversaries. This bipartisan legislation would also take a necessary step to ensure consumers’ information and our communications technology infrastructure is secure,” Thune told the Caller.

A Republican aide familiar with the RESTRICT Act’s drafting works told the Daily Caller the bill is an effort to codify former President Donald Trump’s information and communications technology and services (ICTS) executive order issued in 2019.

The reason why the bill doesn’t mention “TikTok” by name is “in part because federal courts blocked Trump’s outright bans of TikTok and WeChat in 2020. Legal experts have also raised serious questions about the constitutionality of an outright legislative ban,” the Republican aide said. “Explicitly naming foreign firms in statute – rather than using a broader, risk-based process – also risks subjecting U.S. firms to retaliatory treatment by a range of foreign countries seeking to reduce the market share of U.S. firms, such as Indonesia, Brazil, and India.”

Other bills currently at play in Congress target TikTok specifically. One bill, the “No TikTok on United States Devices Act,” would direct Biden to prohibit transactions with ByteDance — TikTok’s parent company — within 30 days. Hawley, the sponsor of the “No TikTok On United States Devices Act” called for Congress to “immediately” pass his legislation.

“TikTok is an open door for the Chinese Communist Party into the data of every American that has the app on their phone. We cannot allow this invasion of privacy and allow China to spy on those most vulnerable. The Senate should immediately pass my legislation to ban TikTok on American devices,” Hawley told the Caller.

Republican Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, the House sponsor of the bill, also called on Congress to ban TikTok outright.

“TikTok is a clear threat to our privacy and national security. Not only is TikTok directly associated with the Chinese Communist Party, but it has been used to spy on Americans and gain an alarming level of access to users’ phones. This should concern every citizen who values their privacy, security, and personal information. Banning CCP tied TikTok nationwide is the only route to ending this malicious cybersecurity threat,” Buck told the Caller. “I am proud to introduce this legislation alongside Sen. Josh Hawley to ensure that every Americans’ privacy and security is protected from hostile foreign entities.”

Rubio argued for his own legislation that he introduced in the Senate, the ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act, that would block and prohibit “all transactions from any social media company in, or under the influence of, China, Russia, and several other foreign countries of concern.” The bill would allow Congress to directly ban TikTok, as well as other Chinese apps.

Republican Texas Rep. Michael McCaul issued another bill, the DATA Act, that has the potential to ban TikTok. (RELATED: Congress To Advance Bill Allowing President Biden To Ban TikTok)

McCaul’s DATA Act modifies the Berman amendment to the International Emergency Powers Act to make TikTok eligible for a ban by removing the exemption from technology involving “sensitive personal data.”

“Currently the courts have questioned the administration’s authority to sanction TikTok. My bill empowers the administration to ban TikTok or any software applications that threaten U.S. national security. And make no mistake – TikTok is a security threat,” McCaul told the Caller. “Anyone with TikTok downloaded on their device has given the CCP a backdoor to all their personal information. It’s a spy balloon into your phone.”

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