Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse talks TikTok at his Providence office Tuesday. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)
PROVIDENCE — Even as federal lawmakers look to ban TikTok nationwide, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said he is skeptical about potentially outlawing a social media platform that’s become such a prevalent part of life in America.
Last month, a bipartisan group of 25 senators introduced a bill that would give U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo broad power to regulate or ban technology from six countries including China. Raimondo has remained hesitant to take any action regarding regulating TikTok.
The bill currently sits before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Neither Whitehouse nor fellow Rhode Island’s Sen. Jack Reed are sponsors.
More than half of all states have also banned or partially banned TikTok from state-issued devices. Rhode Island is not among those states.
At issue is TikTok’s ownership by Beijing-based ByteDance, which is owned by the Chinese government. The popular app has more than 1 billion downloads, with 67% of U.S. downloads coming from teens, according to the Pew Research Center.
Speaking to reporters in his Downtown Providence office Tuesday, Whitehouse said Congress needs to seriously explain to the public why an app like TikTok is a national threat.
“And we have not made that explanation yet,” he said.
Though hesitant to ban TikTok, Whitehouse said he is not opposed to continuing conversations surrounding Chinese attempts to infiltrate American systems through cyberattacks.
“I think we need to have a more serious and thoughtful approach to how we deal with China as a rival and potential adversary than just to focus on TikTok or a balloon,” he said, referencing the Chinese spy balloon which flew over the country in February.
Whitehouse, who confirmed he does not have a TikTok account, also expressed concerns over the app’s algorithm and its potential to “deliberately move American public opinion.”
“I think that’s a credible danger that needs to be looked at,” he said.
Still, the senator said, these concerns also apply to American-based tech giants Facebook and Twitter.
“The sloppy and slap-dash nature of which all the different platforms police themselves needs a lot of Congressional scrutiny,” Whitehouse said. “We shouldn’t let everyone off the hook just to focus on TikTok.”
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