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Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., downloaded TikTok about two years ago after hearing a lot of buzz about the popular video-sharing app. But he found it disappointing, saying it did not serve him content much more “compelling” than what he would watch on Facebook Reels or Instagram Stories.
“I never really developed into much of an active user,” he told NBC News. He said that after he learned about ByteDance, the Beijing-based company which owns TikTok, he deactivated his account and removed the app from his phone.
And now, he wants to eliminate it from many more devices.
Last week, Johnson introduced the “Block the Tok Act,” which would prohibit the installation and use of TikTok on all government devices, as well as personal devices at military installations and a host of federal agencies, including the State Department, the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and others in the intelligence-gathering community.
The legislation would also prohibit TikTok from accessing user data of U.S. citizens from within China and direct the Federal Trade Commission to launch an investigation into whether the company “has engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” The company did not respond to a request for comment.
TikTok has been on the receiving end of mounting scrutiny over its parent company’s ties to China. Concerned lawmakers and regulators say ByteDance could provide American user data directly to the Chinese government or Beijing might meddle with TikTok’s algorithm for propaganda purposes.
This summer, a BuzzFeed News investigation indicated that TikTok employees in China had access to American data.
On Wednesday, the company wrote on Twitter that it is “making progress toward a final agreement with the U.S. government to further safeguard U.S. user data and address national security interests.”
That same day, members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee grilled TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, during a hearing alongside other social media executives. Pappas insisted that “in no way, shape or form” does the Chinese government exercise influence over TikTok’s behavior or policies and the company did not share data with it.
“We do have employees based in China,” she said. “We also have very strict access controls around the type of data that they can access and where that data is stored, which is here in the United States. And we’ve also said under no circumstances would we give that data to China.”
Pressed by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, on whether TikTok will commit to “cutting off all data and metadata flows to China,” Pappas said, “Our final agreement with the U.S. government will satisfy all national security concerns.”
Johnson told NBC News that he thought prospects of his legislation had improved after that hearing.
“She talks about how TikTok would never give that data to China,” he said. “But she avoided saying that ByteDance wouldn’t facilitate the movement of that kind of data to China. And I would note, we have heard these kinds of claims from TikTok before and they have been found in error.”
A federal judge last month approved a $92 million settlement between TikTok and users of the platform as part of a class-action lawsuit stemming from claims the company improperly gathered data.
Johnson’s legislation is co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Brian Mast of Florida, Ralph Norman of South Carolina, Chris Smith of New Jersey and Jake LaTurner of Kansas. He is working to garner additional support in the next two weeks, before the House adjourns ahead of Election Day.
Restricting TikTok, both because of its parent company’s ties to China and its influence with teenagers, has become a popular cause among conservative activists.
“TikTok must be banned outright, full-stop without any hesitation,” Emily Jashinsky, a culture editor at The Federalist, a right-leaning publication, said during a panel session at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami this week. “It’s a scourge on our culture.”
Johnson said that while most Americans now have a better understanding of how their information is being utilized by social media companies, “their response has generally been a shrug.” He’s hopeful that many will reconsider when it comes to TikTok, just as he did.
“As I learned more and more about the size of this threat, I deleted the app,” he said. “And I think that’s the learning process that we need every federal employee and frankly, every American to really thoughtfully and deliberately engage in.”
Allan Smith is a political reporter for NBC News.
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