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This senator tells NPR why he's leading a charge against TikTok — and what comes next

People hold signs in support of TikTok outside the U.S. Capitol Building on March 13.
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
People hold signs in support of TikTok outside the U.S. Capitol Building on March 13.

The House has voted overwhelmingly to ban TikTok if its Chinese owners don't sell it.

So now the future of the wildly popular social media platform is in the hands of the Senate.

Mark Warner chairs the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Virginia Democrat is leading the push along with Republican Marco Rubio of Florida.

Warner spoke with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro on Tuesday about why he thinks Chinese ownership of TikTok is a national security threat and what he wants to tell the 170 million Americans who are on the platform.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

Ari Shapiro: I know you see Chinese ownership of TikTok as a national security threat. Do you have evidence that it has been used in a way that harms U.S. national security, or are you just trying to avoid potential harm before it occurs?

Mark Warner: I'm not gonna get into any of the classified intel we have on TikTok, but I will say this — I'm a tech guy, that's been my background, I strongly believe in the power of technology. And I think there's a lot of creativity on TikTok. And I love the fact that there are a whole lot of folks who make money off of TikTok as social influencers.

What is the problem is that TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, is a Chinese-controlled company. And based on Chinese law, that company has no option other to respond to the needs of the Communist Party of China. That takes primacy over return to shareholders or to customers.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) says he is concerned about how many young people get their news from TikTok, given it is owned by a Chinese company that controls the platform's algorithm.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Getty Images
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., says he is concerned about how many young people get their news from TikTok, given it is owned by a Chinese company that controls the platform's algorithm.

Shapiro: The U.S. forced China to sell Grindr, which was purchased by a Chinese company. But TikTok wasn't purchased by a Chinese company, it was built in China. And so the reaction from China here is, "Look, this is robber's logic. We built something powerful and successful and now you're demanding it for yourself." What do you say to that?

Warner: What I say is, this is not just a security concern for the United States. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, the European Union have all prohibited TikTok on their government phones because of fear of being spied upon. China, for example, doesn't allow Facebook or Google or other social media platforms to operate in China because they're afraid of that collection of Chinese data. Shouldn't we be concerned about Chinese collection of American data?

And then secondly, the thing that is really concerning me the most is, for many young people, they get all of their news from TikTok, and a slight change in that algorithm — particularly in an election year like this — and you might see come October, that TikTok news is starting to say, "Well you know what, Taiwan is really part of China."

Shapiro: I know you can't reveal classified information. But can you tell us if there is, in fact, intelligence showing that this sort of thing has happened?

Warner: I can tell you this: You don't get 352 votes in the House of Representatives unless you've got a convincing case. Matter of fact, after the briefing was done to the Energy and Commerce Committee, it came out and voted 50 to nothing.

Shapiro: So it looks likely that this will pass the Senate as well.

Warner: Well, I hope. Or if it needs to be changed or amended. And again, let's be clear. People were saying it's a TikTok ban. No, we want China to divest. And it could be owned by an American company. It could be owned by a British company. A Brazilian company.

Shapiro: But let's get into what that divestment would entail, because this sale could be one of the most complicated transactions in corporate history. And the legislation sets a six-month timeframe. Realistically speaking, given that most experts say that timeframe is going to make this nearly impossible to accomplish such a complicated divestment, are you prepared to tell 170 million Americans who use TikTok that you are the reason they can't anymore?

Warner: I think we need to make sure there's continuity of service. I also think it's not like that six-month clock is started yet, because we've still got to take action in the Senate. But I think what the House did has sent a message. Now, if at the end of the day, that is an area where there needs to be a bit of a push, or an ability to get an extension of time...

Shapiro: So you're saying the six months might not be a hard and fast immovable deadline...

Warner: Yes. This is sausage making now.

Shapiro: But this bill is not likely to be the end of the story. If it passes, China will probably retaliate just as they did when the Trump administration raised tariffs on Chinese imports. So if this escalates, what do you think the impact could be on corporate America?

Warner: What I would argue is one of the things over the last five years on a bipartisan basis... You know, I've been doing classified briefings with industry sector after industry sector about the challenge of China. And remember, China is a great nation. My bias is not against the Chinese people, obviously not against the Chinese diaspora.

But the Communist Party of China has an authoritarian regime that doesn't respect privacy, doesn't respect individuals' rights, steals $500 billion a year from us in intellectual capital, and in technology domain after technology domain is trying not to be our peer, but frankly, to kind of rule the roost. I think this is the economic and security challenge of our time. And I think we, with our allies around the world, can overcome that. But I don't think we should sit by and allow a — in effect, a media presence that is five or 10 times the size of NPR — to potentially be broadcasting Chinese propaganda in an election year...

Shapiro: But my question is, what would you tell corporate America if China retaliates?

Warner: I would say that China has already been retaliating. Because the number of large corporates that have realized the amount of intellectual property that has been stolen, you have a number of companies pulling out of China. When we have a competitor like China, particularly when it comes to national security issues, we can't let the fear of pushback stop us from doing what's in our national security interest.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.