Sen. Rand Paul on Wednesday said banning TikTok will dash his fellow Republicans’ chances of winning elections for years as the congressional debate over fresh restrictions on the app heats up.
The Kentucky Republican’s vocal opposition to a TikTok ban reveals a rift among GOP lawmakers about how to address concerns about China’s potential use of the app to collect data and influence Americans.
In an op-ed for Louisville’s Courier Journal, Mr. Paul staked out a position as a libertarian-minded Republican defending TikTok against conservative lawmakers who favor new restrictions.
“Congressional Republicans have come up with a national strategy to permanently lose elections for a generation: Ban a social media app called TikTok that 94 million, primarily young Americans, use,” he wrote.
As the number of TikTok users swell, Mr. Paul warned that Republicans will shoulder more of the blame for a ban than Democrats who also support restrictions. More than 150 million Americans use TikTok on a monthly basis, CEO Shou Zi Chew told House lawmakers last week.
Republican opponents of TikTok, however, believe potential national security risks outweigh the political consequences of angering TikTok’s audience.
SEE ALSO: Democratic divide: How a TikTok crackdown is pitting party members against each other
Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, shepherded legislation through the House Foreign Affairs Committee empowering President Biden to ban TikTok. Mr. McCaul said people should not mistake the security threat posed by TikTok via the Chinese Communist Party.
“Anyone with TikTok downloaded on their device has given the CCP a backdoor to all their personal information,” Mr. McCaul said in a statement. “It’s a spy balloon into your phone.”
Mr. Paul said conservative lawmakers who favor restrictions were hypocritical.
“The banning TikTok strategy also comes while the GOP simultaneously complains of liberal U.S. social media companies canceling and censoring conservatives,” Mr. Paul wrote. “So, without a hint of irony, many of these same ‘conservatives’ now agitate to ban a platform owned by an international group that includes several American investors.”
TikTok’s China-founded parent, ByteDance, has caused consternation for some lawmakers who fear that country’s civil-military fusion will force the company to cooperate with the communist government.
Mr. Chew told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that ByteDance is not an agent of China. He said in written testimony that 60% of ByteDance is owned by global institutional investors, with 20% owned by the company’s founders and 20% by employees.
Mr. Chew’s testimony failed to persuade lawmakers to stop trying to restrict his app.
A coalition of 18 senators, with equal representation of Democrats and Republicans, have proposed a law to give Mr. Biden the legal authorization to ban TikTok. Mr. Biden has yet to publicly say whether he’s for banning the app nationally, but the effort led by Sens. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat, and John Thune, South Dakota Republican, seeks a process to let him do so.
Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, spearheaded an effort to remove TikTok from government devices last year. That passed Congress and was signed by Mr. Biden. Mr. Hawley is planning to push this week for a Senate vote for a nationwide ban on TikTok, according to Punchbowl News.
Mr. Paul wrote Wednesday that a nationwide ban of TikTok would make America more like China and run afoul of the Constitution. He said people who disapprove of TikTok or other social media platforms should choose not to use them.
“I hope saner minds will reflect on which is more dangerous: videos of teenagers dancing or the precedent of the U.S. government banning speech,” Mr. Paul wrote. “For me, it’s an easy answer. I will defend the Bill of Rights against all comers, even, if need be, from members of my own party.”
Republicans supporting legislation restricting TikTok have challenged the argument that TikTok is only an app for people to make silly dance videos.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said Monday that restricting TikTok would not violate the First Amendment. He said he thinks the government needs to act in the best interest of America’s national security by banning the China-founded app.
“This is not about the content of the videos,” Mr. Rubio said Monday on the Senate floor. “What this is about is the existence of a company that is related to an important government interest. … It is the most important government interest that we have: the national security of our country.”
Mr. Rubio has worked on bipartisan legislation to implement a ban alongside Sen. Angus King, Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, and Reps. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, Illinois Democrat.
Democrats also are having internal disagreements about how to address TikTok. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, joined the platform and published a video on Saturday saying she opposed banning the app.
Other Democratic lawmakers have appeared far more concerned about TikTok and the likelihood that the company’s plan to wall off American data from China would work. Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, told Mr. Chew last week that he expected China’s communist government would still have the ability to influence TikTok’s operations.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at email@example.com.
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