Missouri lawmakers considering TikTok ban on government devices

Missouri legislators are moving to become the latest state to ban TikTok from government devices.

Taking lead from about 25 other states and the federal government, two pieces of legislation working through the Missouri General Assembly would prohibit users of state-issued devices from downloading and using "any social media application that is owned, in whole or in part, by the Chinese government or any company that shares its users' data with the Chinese Communist Party."

The House version of the bill received a public hearing Monday in the Special Committee on Homeland Security.

"To be very specific and very clear, this is not geared just for TikTok in particular, although it mainly deals with TikTok or addresses the issue of TikTok," said Rep. Adam Schnelting, sponsor of HB 919 and chairman of the committee.

The bill applies to state-issued devices provided to elected and appointed government officials as well as employees of any state entity. The ban does not apply to private devices or a state employee's personal device, and the bill includes exceptions for law enforcement and military agencies.

"As a matter of homeland security, I think that it is unwise to allow the use of the app, or any app for that matter, that is sharing our data with the Chinese Communist Party," Schnelting said. "It puts Missouri data at risk."

In presenting his bill, Schnelting noted it would be in line with federal policy and similar to restrictions found in India and the Netherlands. The federal policy, signed into law at the end of 2022, includes an exemption for security researchers, which Schnelting said he would be open to adding.

Several lawmakers on the committee openly said they don't know much about TikTok.

Rep. Jerome Barnes, a Raytown Democrat and ranking minority member of the committee, said the bill sparked his interest but he doesn't know what TikTok is.

"I really don't know too much about TikTok. I don't have a TikTok account and don't know nothing about TikTok," he said before asking the bill sponsor to explain what it is.

TikTok is a short-form video hosting app featuring user-submitted videos ranging from three seconds to 10 minutes. It's owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company headquartered in Beijing. Considered to be one of the fastest growing apps in the United States, TikTok had approximately 86.9 million U.S. users in 2021, according to Statista. Its user base is expected to grow by about 8 percent year-over-year, and it was the most popular app in 2019 and 2020.

"I mean TikTok is a big name -- I know nothing about it -- but what are some of the other programs?" Rep. Kyle Marquart, R-Washington, asked in regards to HB 919's reach.

Schnelting said he would work on creating a complete list.

Other lawmakers on the House committee questioned why the bill doesn't include apps from other countries like Russia and North Korea. Schnelting said he was open to including them.

"But most certainly we need to do it with those who are absolutely intentionally spying on us," he added.

The bill did not receive any public testimony in support or opposition.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, filed legislation in the Senate to ban the use of TikTok on state devices and form a permanent Joint Committee on State Security.

Soon after a Chinese spy balloon was spotted floating over Missouri, Rowden moved the legislation to the newly created Select Committee on the Protection of Missouri Assets From Foreign Adversaries. It's awaiting committee action.

SJR 41, if approved by both legislative chambers and voters, would ban China-based apps like TikTok and create a committee of lawmakers tasked with determining other social media apps to ban from state-issued devices. The Joint Committee on State Security would also create a blacklist of people and entities that cannot own land in Missouri.

The resolution already lists China, Iran, North Korea and Russia as countries that would be prevented from owning real estate in Missouri.

"China and the CCP are not our friends. They do not share the values of liberty and economic freedom that make America great," Rowden wrote on Twitter. "They are a strategic competitor willing to use any means necessary to expand and broaden their power. They should be treated as such."

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, is among a group of lawmakers at the federal level pushing legislation to ban TikTok from any and all U.S. devices.

His bill, the No TikTok on United States Devices Act, would remove the app from U.S. markets and ban ByteDance from conducting any commercial activity in the country.

TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is scheduled to appear before a U.S. House committee in March to discuss the app's consumer privacy and data security practices and relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, among other topics.

"TikTok poses a threat to all Americans who have the app on their devices," Hawley said in a January statement announcing his bill. "It opens the door for the Chinese Communist Party to access Americans' personal information, keystrokes and location through aggressive data harvesting. Banning it on government devices was a step in the right direction, but now is the time to ban it nationwide to protect the American people."

On Monday, Barnes asked Schnelting if the state had any plans to ban the public from using TikTok.

"Not from me, no," Schnelting responded. "This is just about state devices. It's about protecting our data."

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