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Sen. Marco Rubio: TikTok should be demonetized unless China hands over algorithm

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, during a hearing in Washington, D.C., on March 8, 2023.

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WASHINGTON — Social media giant TikTok should be demonetized in the U.S. unless the Chinese government hands over its algorithm, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Wednesday.

“It’s not about banning it, it is about allowing [TikToks] not to be monetized,” Rubio said at CNBC’s CFO Council Summit in Washington, D.C.

Rubio has previously said that demonetizing TikTok was tantamount to banning it, and he introduced legislation last year to do precisely that.

“It is time to ban Beijing-controlled TikTok for good,” Rubio said in a December 2022 statement on his bill.

More than 150 million Americans use TikTok and nearly five million businesses advertise on the platform, according to the company.

ByteDance, the firm that developed TikTok, is based in Beijing. The platform is subject to Chinese law on tech exports and the Chinese government has come out against any plans to sell TikTok away from ByteDance.

In 2022, two former TikTok employees were found to have improperly accessed the user data of two journalists from BuzzFeed and the Financial Times.

“What happens in a time of real conflict?” Rubio said Wednesday. “What happens when you dedicate yourself to driving not just messages, but manipulating the algorithm, for example, to convince Americans that Taiwan is not worth fighting for?”

“What companies in the world is that algorithm going to be beneficial to in the long term?” Rubio told the room of chief financial officers. “It’s not going to be American companies. That algorithm will know more about our market and our consumers than our companies do.”

TikTok’s algorithm “doesn’t ‘promote’ one side of an issue over another and we have rigorous measures in place to prevent manipulation,” according to a company spokesperson.

“The content people see on TikTok is generated by our community and recommendations are based on the content people have previously engaged with,” said the spokesperson.

Congress voted in December to ban TikTok on federal government devices. Several states followed suit soon afterward, including New York.

Rubio’s bill would prohibit financial transactions from social media companies located in, or “under the influence of” China, Russia and several other U.S. adversaries.

Rubio said the transaction block should remain in place “unless [China is] going to transfer the algorithm to the U.S., which they can’t and won’t do, because Chinese law doesn’t allow it.”

Reps. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., the chair and ranking member of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, respectively, introduced a companion bill to Rubio’s in the House.

The Senate bill was reintroduced in February and co-sponsored with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

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