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Ohio lawmakers propose ban on TikTok, other apps with Chinese ownership




Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

Some Ohio lawmakers want to prohibit state employees from using apps like TikTok on their state-issued devices.

The proposal echoes legislation already advanced in numerous states. According to an analysis from the website Government Technology, 30 states have so far moved to place some kind of ban on the app for state-owned devices.

At the end of last year President Joe Biden signed a federal spending package that included a prohibition on federal employees using the app on agency-owned devices, as well. Similarly, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued an executive order to that effect in January.

The measure under consideration in the Ohio House largely seeks to codify the governor’s executive order. It got its first committee hearing in late March, shortly before lawmakers left on spring recess.

House Bill 17

Although lawmakers emphasize the app, Ohio’s approach doesn’t limit itself to TikTok. Instead, the sponsors restrict the use of any “application or service owned by an entity located in China.” Elaborating on that blanket prohibition, the legislation names specific apps like Weibo, Xiaohongshu and Alipay among others. Those platforms occupy market spaces similar to Twitter, Instagram and Venmo in China.

The measure also takes particular aim at TikTok and the popular messaging application WeChat, by explicitly prohibiting any service “developed or provided by their respective parent companies ByteDance and Tencent.

The bill’s sponsor Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Loveland, argued “banning these programs from government devices protect sensitive state information from potential breaches to the Chinese government.”

“House Bill 17 does not — and I repeat, does not — prohibit TikTok or WeChat or anything else from personal devices,” she added. “Nor does it limit personal usage by government employees on their personal devices.”

Her co-sponsor, Rep. D.J. Swearingen, R-Huron, described how TikTok and other apps monitor user behavior to determine what to show users next. He argued laws in China requiring companies give the government access to that user data could put state information at risk.

“Because ByteDance, the parent company, is in China, it’s reportable to the Chinese Communist Party, and has to follow these laws to the tee,” Swearingen argued, “which includes all of our consumer data that’s harvested to go into this algorithm that’s targeting the Tick Tock users.”

But how exactly the Chinese government could leap from collecting user data — which, no doubt, represents an important breach — to other sensitive state information contained on a device remains unclear.

Committee questions

While Schmidt and Swearingen emphasized the limits of their legislation — impacting state devices, but not personal ones — other lawmakers wondered why they didn’t go further.

“We know Facebook has already been accused of selling, proven actually, to sell our data,” Rep. Munira Abduallahi, D-Columbus argued. “So why doesn’t this bill go into more social media? I think they all pose a security risk at some point.”

Rep. Swearingen insisted the difference is the influence of the Chinese government. But he signaled he was open to pursuing other “bad actors” in social media.

Meanwhile, Rep. Thaddeus Claggett, R-Licking County, urged them to take an even harder line on TikTok. He suggested the prohibitions should extend to all state employees and anyone “dealing with state information,” regardless of whether the device is personal or state-owned.

“I’m not sure why we would stop at the place where you’ve stopped,” Claggett said, “I appreciate the fact that you’re trying to be narrow, but at the same time, it was seemed like we would need to go further.”

Schmidt suggested they could direct state agencies to instruct employees not to conduct public business on private devices. But she balked at trying to codify it noting, “we certainly don’t want to interfere with individual rights.”

Not dissuaded, Claggett argued, “it just seems like we’ve closed one door and left the screen door open.”

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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