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Rubio: “We Should Ban Tiktok, Because It’s Bad For America”
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) spoke on the Senate floor about why we need to ban TikTok. See below for a lightly edited transcript. Watch on YouTube and Rumble. Last month, Rubio reintroduced his ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act—the only bipartisan and bicameral legislation that would actually prevent TikTok from operating in the U.S.
Back in 2019, I must have been one of the first people to call for the company TikTok to be banned in the United States. It’s been a while now. It’s not something I just came up with the other day. But I do think that’s a pretty extraordinary thing, to ban a company.
For someone like me, who has argued for a national ban on a company like this, to take away something from over 100-and-something million Americans, many of whom I’ve heard from, many of whom I know personally, before we do something like that, I think people deserve an explanation as to why. Why is it that we would want to do that? I don’t think the answer can just be, “Trust us, it’s bad for America.” I think they do deserve an answer, and I think they do deserve a clear argument as to why it’s in our national interest to do this and why it’s the only option we have.
First, I think it’s important to understand how TikTok works. It’s an ingenious app. No one argues about that. It’s these short-term, short-form videos, and it always seems to show you what you want to see. And the more you use it, the more it shows you the things you want to see. How does it do that?
Well, it does it two ways. First of all, it scoops up an extraordinary amount of data, not just data on what you’re watching, all kinds of data. CNBC actually talked about it. TikTok collects the content that you viewed, the content you created and shared, your contact list, your name, your age, your username, your emails, your messages, your photos, your videos, and other personal information. In fact, in 2021, TikTok changed its privacy policies. It can now even collect biometric data like your face print and your voice print.
But that’s not the only thing it does. I hear some people criticizing us, and all they talk about is, “Everybody collects data.” It’s not just the data. What really makes TikTok so effective is that it has an algorithm that uses artificial intelligence to combine all of this data. That algorithm knows you better than you know yourself. It knows the videos you’re going to like before you even know you’re going to like them. There’s an extraordinary power behind this. It’s what they call a recommender engine. We’re going to call it an algorithm.
Now, a lot of people would say, “What’s the big deal? All social media app companies do that, and not just them. Netflix does it to recommend movies you might want to watch, and Spotify does it to recommend music. Clearly, Instagram and Facebook and Snap and Twitter, all of them have an algorithm, and all of them collect data. “So what’s the big deal? What they’re doing is no different than anybody else.” Here’s the difference. Of all these companies I just mentioned to you, the only one who has a Chinese company that owns it is [TikTok].
The heart and soul of TikTok, the recommender engine, the algorithm, that belongs to ByteDance, and in order for TikTok to work, ByteDance has to have access to the data of Americans. Now, here’s what people will say to you: “So what if it’s a Chinese company? They don’t all have to be American companies.” Actually, the CEO of TikTok was here last week, and he said, “ByteDance is not owned or controlled by the Chinese government. They’re a private company that’s owned by outside investors that include Americans.” Well, this is disingenuous. It’s not true. Let me tell you why it’s not true.
First of all, there is no such thing as a private company in China, not in the way we think of a private company. Let me explain why. In China, they have a law called the National Intelligence Law. And the National Intelligence Law of China automatically requires every single Chinese company, that includes ByteDance, to do whatever the government of China tells them to do. China has another law. It’s called the Data Security Law. What that law says is that every tech company in China, like ByteDance, has to hand over to the government whatever information they want. They have to do it by law. That’s a big difference between them and these other companies.
I read the other day that China says they’re going to block any forced sale of TikTok. How could China block the forced sale of TikTok if they don’t control TikTok? The reason they can block it is because, through these laws, they control the company that controls the algorithm that drives TikTok. [TikTok] is controlled by ByteDance. Under Chinese law, if the government of China tells ByteDance, the owner of TikTok, to use the algorithm a certain way, they have to do it.
It doesn’t matter if 100 percent of the shareholders of ByteDance are Americans. If they’re located in China, and the Chinese government tells them, “We want you to use the algorithm and the data that you have access to in a certain way,” they have no choice but to do it. That’s not just true for ByteDance. That’s true for every company in China.
A lot of people say, “Let’s just store all the American data here in America. Let’s just put it all on a server located in the United States, and that will do the trick.” No it won’t, and here’s why. Even if you stored all of the data that TikTok has on Americans, over 100-something million users, even if you stored all of it in America, ByteDance in China still has to be given access to that data, because the algorithm that TikTok depends on doesn’t work without the data. ByteDance has to have access.
That’s almost like putting your life savings in a safe, but then giving the thief the combination. Who cares that it’s in a safe? Who cares where the safe is? If the thief has the combination, they can get into the safe. It doesn’t matter where you store the data. If ByteDance owns the algorithm, they have to have access to the data, and if they have access to the data, the Chinese government has access to the data whenever they want.
The latest iteration of what we should do is, “We should force TikTok to be sold.” Sold to who? TikTok is worthless without the algorithm. So even if TikTok is bought by Americans, they still need the algorithm that ByteDance owns, and you can’t buy the algorithm from ByteDance, even if they wanted to sell it to you. ByteDance can never sell the algorithm, because the Chinese government specifically imposed a law in 2020 that says you cannot transfer the algorithm outside of China. So selling TikTok is not going to make a difference, because no matter who buys it, TikTok is worthless. It won’t work without the algorithm. The algorithm belongs to ByteDance, and they have to do whatever the Chinese government tells them to do.
This is where people have said to me, “Who cares if the Chinese government controls the algorithm and has access to the data?” They want me to explain how an app that features funny videos and the latest dance fad can be a national security threat. Let me walk you through a very realistic hypothetical.
Let’s suppose for a moment that China decides they’re going to invade Taiwan in 2027 or 2028. The key to a successful invasion or taking of Taiwan is to prevent the United States of America from getting involved. The key to keeping the United States from getting involved is to convince the American people that we shouldn’t get involved, because we’re a democracy. [China] knows that public opinion matters in America. Knowing all this, the Chinese government goes to ByteDance, who by law has to do whatever they’re told, and says, “We want you to align your algorithm to shape American public opinion on Taiwan.”
They won’t do this overnight. They’ll spend a couple of years laying this out. “We want you to align your algorithm to make sure that people in America are seeing messages that convince them that America should not get involved. Not only that, we want you to use the data to target specific American audiences with specific messages.” For example, some Americans might see a bunch of videos that allege to show people in Taiwan supporting a Chinese takeover. Maybe family members of military members would see videos about how thousands of Americans will die if the United States gets involved. Others might see videos of Americans, or who they think are Americans, arguing, “Why do we care about Taiwan? We should be focused on our problems here at home.”
People say, “Well, if that happens, then you deal with it.” Well, once we notice what they’re actually doing, and we try to do something about it, here’s what comes next, what’s already happening now. You’re going to have a bunch of small businesses in America who depend on marketing and TikTok. I don’t diminish that, I know people that have built up their businesses using TikTok for marketing, and it works, it’s better than the other apps for that. But just imagine when we have to go to them and say, “Guys, we’ve got to shut TikTok down now, because now it’s real. Now they’re using it against us.” Those people are going to come out and say, “You’re going to destroy my business.”
In fact, China will probably threaten those people. China will probably make it very clear: “If the U.S. gets involved, we’re going to knock all the Americans off TikTok. Down goes your business.” Those people will suddenly be asking their elected officials here not to get involved in Taiwan. And you know where we find ourselves then? Paralyzed. A country that’s paralyzed, that cannot act in its own national security interests, because we’ve allowed an adversary to use an app and data that they control to shape public opinion in America over an extended period of time, and we can’t do anything about it.
Some people will say it’s a violation of the First Amendment [to ban TikTok]. I agree that you have a right to speak and say anything you want in America. This is not about the content of the videos. What this is about is the existence of a company which is related to an important government interest. What is that government interest? It’s not just a substantial government interest, it is the most important government interest that we have: the national security of our country. Preventing our country from being paralyzed from acting in its national security interest is the most compelling and important government interest one can imagine.
Now people say, “This is all hypothetical. There’s no evidence the Chinese government is doing any of this.” Let me first start by saying that every threat to our national security begins as theoretical before they become reality. For example, China is building hypersonic missiles designed to sink our ships. They’re not firing them at our ships today. They’re not sinking our ships. They’re not even threatening to sink our ships openly. But somehow everybody around here agrees we’ve got to do something about the hypersonics. But they’re not doing it now. It’s “theoretical,” right?
[Similarly,] Russia has never not launched nuclear missiles against the United States. But we spend a lot of money every year on NORAD, on monitoring our skies, on making sure that we’re not being attacked. It’s a theoretical threat, but one we’ve taken seriously for 70 years.
Second, what’s so theoretical about using propaganda during a time of war? There’s nothing theoretical about propaganda during warfare and conflict. In fact, propaganda has been a weapon that’s been used in virtually every conflict for centuries to demoralize and to divide your adversary.
Third, this is not just theoretical. We’ve actually seen TikTok be used to drive messages and to undermine opponents. It was used to spread pro-Russian messages during the invasion of Ukraine. It’s been used to suppress videos talking about Tiananmen Square, the genocide of Uyghur Muslims in China. It’s already being used to censor. In fact, it was used to control content and limit content about our elections in 2022. I can go further than that. [TikTok] has already been used to collect data on specific reporters whose stories [ByteDance] didn’t like. They used it to track the location of these reporters.
In fact, here in America, TikTok was caught spying on American journalists who were writing stories that TikTok didn’t like. TikTok denied it: “It’s not true. It’s a lie.” Then they had to admit it. So now it’s, “We fired the people who did this.” And now they’re under Justice Department investigation.
But here’s the point. I would say about this whole theoretical thing: If, God forbid, and I say “God forbid,” I really do, because no one wishes for armed conflict with anyone, there’s nothing good about war, if, God forbid, we are ever in a war with China, China will use cyber attacks to try to take down our electric grid. China will use space weapons to try to destroy the satellites we have in space. China will use these missiles to try to sink our ships and kill Americans. China will do all these things. But somehow we think they are incapable of using a social media app with 150 to 200 million American users? “They would never use that against us. They’ll sink our ships. They’ll shoot down our satellites. They’ll shut down our grid. But they would never use an app that they control.” Come on, of course they would.
There’s a lot more to say on this topic, and this is one we should debate and talk about. It’s a big deal. We shouldn’t take this lightly. But I will say this: since 1991, America has been the sole superpower in the world. I would venture to guess that almost everyone who serves here did not serve in government at a time when America had a near-peer adversary. So I think we’ve generally, as a nation, certainly as a government, forgotten what it’s like to live in a world in which there’s another country and another government that has almost as much power as we do. But after 30 years, that’s where we are. That’s where we stand right now. Whether we like it or not, we are in a near-peer competition, and in many ways a conflict, with China for global influence, for the direction of the world.
We have no problem with the Chinese people. They are the number one victims of the Chinese Communist Party on the planet. But their government, they want to be the world’s most powerful country, and they want to do it at our expense. The consequence of that is that the world’s most powerful country will be a nation that puts Uyghur Muslims in death camps, that is trying to destroy Tibetan culture, that had no problem massacring their own people in Tiananmen Square, that, as we speak right now, are probably arming the Russians to commit these atrocities in Ukraine, that don’t believe in any of the things that we are here debating about, free speech and the like.
We are in a competition, and we are in a conflict, hopefully never an armed one, but nonetheless a conflict. And we have operating, in our country, an app, the fastest growing app, that has the most detailed personal data on over 100 million American users. And we are turning over the power one day for them to use it to divide us, to paralyze us, to confuse us, to turn us against each other.
Think of the damage that Russia did by putting fake accounts on Twitter and buying ads on Facebook. Can you imagine if Russia actually owned Facebook or Twitter? Actually controlled those companies? The damage it would have done to this country? Now imagine that [power wielded by] a country with an economy 50 times the size and a hundred times more capability. That’s what we’re facing here. It’s not a game, and we should take it seriously.
If there is a way to deal with this that doesn’t involve a ban or something drastic, I’ve always been open to that. But it doesn’t exist, because of the way this company is structured. We better take it seriously, or one day, 20 or 30 years from now, people will look back and say, “You guys should have taken it seriously, and we failed to do so, and we paid the price for it.”
We should act on it as soon as possible. We should ban TikTok, because it’s bad for America. It harms our country, and it’s a danger to our future.