Amid US TikTok bans, a few balk at writing its name into law

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Kansas state Reps. Barb Wasinger, R-Hays, left, and Cindi Howerton, right, R-Wichita, follow a debate in the House over a proposal they favor for banning TikTok from state government devices, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas. Wasinger is chair of the committee that sponsored the measure, and Howerton led the supporters in the debate. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. – Banning TikTok from government devices enjoys bipartsan support across the U.S., but a few Democratic legislators in Kansas object to expanding a ban imposed by their party's governor because they don't want a state law to target a company by name.

The Republican-controlled Kansas House voted 109-12 on Thursday to pass a bill to prohibit any electronic device owned or issued to a state employee from accessing TikTok. The measure appears to have bipartisan support in the GOP-dominated state Senate.

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In late December, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly responded to concerns about the popular social media app's Chinese ownership with an executive order to keep it off state devices. However, a new law would cover agencies or institutions not under her direct control, such as state universities or the Insurance Department.

And during a brief debate, House members added language to also apply the ban to any app or website owned by ByteDance Ltd., the private Chinese company owning TikTok, as well as any subsidiary, successor company or firm “directly or indirectly controlled” by ByteDance.

Congress and more than half of U.S. states have banned TikTok from government devices. Most of the Kansas House critics were Democrats, and they questioned listing companies by name in a law — something Kansas typically doesn't do, even in creating taxpayer-funded incentives to lure a single company's project to the state.

“What’s next, right? Today it's TikTok. Tomorrow it's Twitter or Facebook,” said state Rep. Brandon Woodard, a Kansas City-area Democrat. “It’s important for us to be able to communicate with our constituents however we want to.”

TikTok is consumed by two-thirds of American teens. But there’s long been bipartisan concern in Washington that China could use its legal and regulatory power to seize American user data or try to push misinformation or narratives favoring China.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing increased with the discovery of a suspected Chinese spy balloon over the U.S. and its shooting down earlier this month. It's also intensified interest in Congress and in U.S. states, including Kansas, in restricting foreign ownership of property, particularly agricultural land.

“If I had my way, we would ban every piece of mobile application or website coming out of China, but we'll address that another day,” said Rep. Stephen Owens, a Republican from central Kansas.

In Arizona, a state House committee on Wednesday unanimously approved a Republican proposal to ban TikTok on government devices after no one voiced opposition.

The measure doesn't name TikTok but describes a “covered application” in such a way that it applies to the app. Its sponsor, Republican Rep. Matt Gress, of Phoenix, said legislative rules don't allow the company's name to be used.

Gress said his measure addresses concerns with the ability of China's ruling Communist Party to capture "crucial details about personal, private internet activity.”

TikTok spokesman Jamal Brown said it is working to “meaningfully address” security concerns from U.S. and state officials and said states' bans do not improve security.

“State legislatures are pressing ahead with bans of TikTok based on nothing more than the hypothetical concerns they’ve heard on the news," Brown said in email to The Associated Press.

Despite TikTok's popularity among young people, some public university systems also are banning TikTok on their devices. The Kansas Board of Regents has done so at its main offices, but the state universities under its supervision have not. Regents CEO Blake Flanders said Thursday that such a step is “much more complicated.”

“There are so many users,” he said. “You have thousands of devices at residence halls.”

Woodard and other critics of the Kansas bill said Kelly's executive order on TikTok is sufficient to address concerns about the app.

State Rep. JoElla Hoye, a fellow Kansas City-area Democrat, suggested that naming a specific company in Kansas law is at odds with the name of the sponsor of the bill — the House Committee on Legislative Modernization.

She said after voting no, “How many decades from now will we even know what TikTok is?”


Associated Press writer Jacques Billeaud contributed to this report from Phoenix.


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