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TikTok ban could damage US-China trade, expert says

After the US House of Representatives voted to approve a bill that could result in US app stores removing TikTok, a US-China tech relations expert told The Independent the legislation could increase tensions between the two countries.

The Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applicants Act, which passed with overwhelming support, will now go to the US Senate. Authored by a bipartisan group of representatives, the bill would allow federal law enforcement agencies to label certain apps as national security threats if they are determined to be under the control of foreign adversaries.

If the bill becomes law, TikTok parent company ByteDance will have 180 days to sell 80 per cent of its stake to a US company or face the app being removed from American app stores. Now, an expert in US-China tech relations says the bill will only increase tensions between the two countries if it passes the US Senate and receives a signature from President Joe Biden.

Dr Aynne Kokas, a professor at the University of Virginia, told The Independent that the Chinese government may retaliate through trade if the bill becomes law.

“We could see more bellicose rhetoric or greater kind of trade pressures that are placed on the US by China,” Dr Kokas said just hours after the successful House vote. “It would be quite shocking for there not to be some sort of, at a very minimum, trade-related reciprocal action on the part of China. The big challenge is, it’s never really clear what that is going to be.”

Dr Kokas, who has written extensively on US-China tech and media relations, explained that US legislators would be better off passing a bill that impacts the privacy regulations around all media companies — not just those controlled by “foreign adversaries.”

“I have kind of long been of the mind that it’s much better to actually apply laws to all US companies, all companies operating in the US, rather than singling out specific firms,” Dr Kokas told The Independent. “Particularly those that are based in countries where we have really challenging relations already in a variety of different sectors.”

Dr Kokas noted that TikTok executives have called for similar legislation — largely because, she said, it’s very unlikely to happen.

“It’s quite disturbing, but that is also a lobbying point that’s used by TikTok to argue against TikTok-specific bans,” she said.

“It’s a red herring where they just focus on that as the end solution, knowing that that will never happen or won’t happen easily, especially in a post-Dobbs environment,” Dr Kokas continued.

Dr Kokas is referring to the US Supreme Court’s Dobbs v Jackson decision in 2022, which overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade case in which the Justices ruled that abortion is protected under the right to privacy granted by the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

Some House Democrats levelled similar criticisms against the bill.

Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, told The Independent she’s not convinced the legislation is necessary.

“They were not able to provide any concrete evidence that this was necessary for us to protect our national security outside of the misinformation that we’ve seen on Facebook, on Instagram on YouTube shorts on Twitter, so just singling out this particular company seemed like it was not in line with protecting our national security,” she said.

Meanwhile, Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, called the bill “the wrong approach.”

“Instead of targeting a single company in a rushed and restricted process, Congress should pass comprehensive data privacy legislation that creates standards and regulations around data harvesting across all social media companies, like many other nations have done,” Ms Pressley said in a statement.