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Mitch McConnell calls TikTok one of “Beijing’s most popular spy tools”

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared to endorse a bill on Monday that threatened a nationwide ban on TikTok, describing the popular social media platform as one of “Beijing's most popular tools of coercion and Espionage”.

The fact that TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance has long been viewed as a concern by U.S. officials, who argue the app poses a risk to Americans.

“America’s greatest strategic rival threatens our security here on U.S. soil … in tens of millions of American homes,” McConnell said in a Senate floor speech, referring to TikTok.

Proponents of a ban have long cited the fact that Chinese companies and companies operating in China are legally required to share data with the government upon request as a major red flag.

The House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill last month that would require ByteDance to sell the platform within six months or risk a nationwide ban.

McConnell appeared to support the bill, whose path in the Senate is uncertain.

“Requiring a divestment of Beijing-influenced companies from TikTok would be squarely within established constitutional precedent,” McConnell said. “And it would begin to turn the tide of a tremendous threat to America’s children and our nation’s prospects in the defining contest of the 21st century.”

He continued: “This is a matter that deserves the urgent attention of Congress. And I will support sensible, bipartisan steps to take one of Beijing’s favorite tools of coercion and espionage off the table.”

But some members of the upper house appear unhappy with the House bill, in part because it appears to target a single company and could also run afoul of the First Amendment.

McConnell strongly rejected the idea that restricting TikTok would violate Americans' free speech.

“I don’t take a backseat to anyone when it comes to protecting First Amendment rights. “I have vigorously defended Americans’ right to even the most harmful forms of free expression, like flag burning,” McConnell said. “But there is a stark difference between the views Americans might express about TikTok … and the actions of a platform beholden to our most important strategic competitor.”

Nevertheless, an attempt by former President Donald Trump in 2020 to ban the social media platform in the US was blocked by the courts on First Amendment grounds.

McConnell's comments came as Beijing Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the issue of TikTok had been discussed “briefly” in talks with her Chinese counterparts, noting that the US was right to be concerned about its citizens' private data.

“We would like to find a path forward,” Yellen said. “Of course this is important to the Chinese.”

President Joe Biden has said he would sign the House bill on TikTok if it comes to his desk.

Meanwhile, Trump, who previously tried to impose a nationwide ban on the app, has since reversed course, saying restricting TikTok would only benefit Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

“If you get rid of TikTok, Facebook and Sugar Jewelry will double their business,” he wrote.

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