TikTok ban on state worker phones won’t happen in California this year

The TikTok app on a phone on July 25, 2023. Photo by Felix Schlikis, Imago via Reuters

California won’t join more than 30 other states and the federal government in banning the TikTok app on state phones and devices — at least not this year.

Senate Bill 74 — a bipartisan effort between Sens. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat, and Brian Jones, a San Diego Republican — was shelved while it was on the Assembly floor for a vote before the Legislature adjourns next Thursday, even though it had a relatively smooth path.

The Senate passed the bill 40-0 in late May, with an urgency clause to take effect immediately after being signed by the governor, and it breezed through Assembly committees, including a 16-0 vote last Friday to get out of the appropriations suspense file. 

But now, it’s a two-year bill and won’t be considered again until 2024.

Dodd said the bill was held after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office reached out to him about waiting on findings of a study ordered by the governor Wednesday that relates to artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. 

“They have a choice to make whether they sign the bill or veto the bill, and if it really doesn’t meet the criteria, they’re going to veto it,” Dodd told CalMatters.

He added that the governor’s Wednesday executive order to study the development, risks and use of artificial intelligence illustrated that more work needed to be done. “I’m willing to do that work, and work with him moving forward to craft a bill that really makes a difference going forward,” Dodd said. 

Nina Krishel, a spokesperson for Jones, said the bill was moved to the inactive file to work out amendments. “Specifically, we need to ensure that the bill’s language doesn’t impede any law enforcement investigations,” Krishel said in an email to CalMatters. 

The bill would ban TikTok and other “high-risk” apps on state-issued devices but wouldn’t impact state employees from using TikTok on their personal devices. The current version of the measure also wouldn’t apply to the Legislature, the governor or lieutenant governor; agencies that report to statewide elected officials, such as the attorney general and secretary of state; the judicial branch; or the University of California and California State University systems.  

The measure was amended from its original version to connect the ban to other state standards on security, and to allow state agencies to allow the short-form video app if it was necessary for official purposes — though that wasn’t defined further. 

The state is investigating the safety of the app on state devices, and Attorney General Rob Bonta is part of a nationwide probe into TikTok’s impact on the mental health of young people.

President Biden signed a law last December banning federal employees from having TikTok on their government phones, and at least 30 other states have some form of restriction amid fears that the Chinese government, which owns a piece of TikTok’s parent company, could use the app to spy on Americans. Montana is the only state to have to try to ban TikTok entirely, but is being challenged in court. California Attorney General Rob Bonta is part of a nationwide probe into Tik Tok’s impact on the mental health of young people.

Some critics question whether such bans unfairly target a Chinese-owned social media company.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice expressed such a concern in March regarding congressional hearings with TikTok’s CEO.

“The location and jurisdiction of TikTok’s parent company may be relevant, but it deflects attention related to the underlying lack of transparency and accountability to which the entire industry must answer,” the national advocacy group wrote. “There are legitimate privacy concerns surrounding TikTok and many other free apps that collect data from its users, but it is possible to question a company’s policies, advocate for privacy and data protections, and/or criticize a government’s civil and human rights agenda without employing racist rhetoric.” 

While TikTok didn’t officially oppose California’s bill, it did send a letter describing security settings on the app, and suggesting the bill be amended to include all types of entertainment and social media platforms or applications. 

“This bill has been characterized as ensuring the state takes all measures to secure the cybersecurity infrastructure from threats of access and breach. If this is the goal of the measure, prohibiting one type of service will not reach this goal,” TikTok, whose U.S. headquarters is in Los Angeles, said in the letter. “Given the critically important information state agencies hold, we share the goal of ensuring California has secure cybersecurity infrastructure and look forward to working with you to reach that goal.”

The company has spent nearly $80,000 lobbying on SB 74 and three other bills this session, according to state records

But TikTok isn’t the only social media company lobbying the state to protect its interests.

And social media companies are often successful. Last week, a bill by Sen. Nancy Skinner, an Oakland Democrat, to hold social media platforms liable for promoting harmful content about eating disorders, self-harm and drugs died in the Assembly’s appropriations committee. The bill had met with heavy opposition from tech companies, which helped stall a similar bill last year.

Robert Herrell, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, noted that several bills regulating social media platforms have died due to the effectiveness of the industry’s lobbying. 

“You could try to single out a few members, but really this is about the outsized power of that industry — because of the largesse they have,” he said.

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