A bipartisan bill introduced last month to ban the popular social media app TikTok could affect a much broader array of information technology products and lead to significant implementation challenges if passed into law.
The Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act would give the U.S. Department of Commerce authority to review and potentially ban IT products and services from foreign countries including China and Russia that pose undue national security risks, according to the legislation. That includes TikTok, which is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance and has been the subject of scrutiny regarding how Chinese government officials could access U.S. user data.
The RESTRICT Act defines information and communications technology products or services as "any hardware, software, or other product" that enables data processing, storage and transmission. It essentially targets any IT product made by the countries named in the legislation and used in the U.S., said Darrell West, senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's Center for Technology Innovation.
"We're in a transition where almost every company is becoming an IT company in one way or another. Everybody has a website; a lot of people are doing ecommerce on their sites; so many American companies have products that are made in China," he said. "How the law gets written will have huge consequences in terms of the breadth of the coverage. But it could definitely apply to a number of different firms."
Targeting IT products that pose security risk
The RESTRICT Act is legislation that attempts to get ahead of national security issues posed by products like TikTok, and it's not the first time the U.S. has sought to ban such products from foreign countries, said Sarah Kreps, director of the Cornell Tech Policy Institute.
The U.S. previously targeted and banned telecommunications technologies from Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE. It also recently implemented new export controls around semiconductor and artificial intelligence technologies.
The RESTRICT Act, if passed into law, would eliminate the game of "whack-a-mole" the U.S. government plays when a national security issue with foreign-owned technology pops up, Kreps said. The RESTRICT Act is more forward-looking than previous attempts to single out and ban individual companies like Huawei or a single app like TikTok, more broadly targeting China's development in the IT space, she said.
"Because the Chinese are getting so proficient at addictive app development, you're going to have another one pop up tomorrow. Then you need new legislation for that," she said. "This RESTRICT Act, which is much more encompassing, circumvents that problem of whack-a-mole -- today it's TikTok, tomorrow it's some new addictive data privacy-infringing app."
However, she added that implementing such a law raises concern for IT products beyond apps like TikTok, given the scope and breadth of U.S. firms' interconnectedness with IT production in countries like China.
RESTRICT Act would face implementation challenges
Implementing and ensuring compliance with such legislation would be a significant issue for the federal government, given that foreign IT products, particularly from China, are used by U.S. firms, Kreps said.
"It would be very messy and bulky to try to ensure compliance on something that's so encompassing and integrated into everything individuals and companies do every day," she said.
Darrell WestSenior fellow, Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation
Banning TikTok, for example, presents a challenge right off the bat, she said.
"This would put Apple especially in an awkward place because they do a lot of business with China with the iPhone," she said. "They would be very reluctant to remove TikTok from the Apple store."
Indeed, the RESTRICT Act could invite retaliation from China against U.S. firms operating in China, including Apple, West said.
"Most of our iPhones are made there. A lot of pharmaceuticals are made there. Tesla has a manufacturing plant outside Shanghai. The list goes on and on," he said.
Kreps said the U.S. is already running into challenges decoupling an integrated supply chain with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The IRA initially set out requirements for a certain percentage of electric vehicles (EVs) to be manufactured in the U.S. But it has struggled with backlash from partner nations and a supply chain rooted in countries like China, which makes many of the parts used in EVs.
"How do you actually extricate these different steps of a complicated manufacturing process -- a process that has taken decades of integration?" she said.
Some lawmakers have begun expressing reservations about the RESTRICT Act despite the support of 12 bipartisan senators and the White House, meaning it's not certain to be passed into law, Kreps said. The bill has yet to be considered on the Senate floor.
Though Kreps said the national security concerns motivating senators behind the RESTRICT Act are legitimate, she doesn't believe the RESTRICT Act is the solution. To her it feels like a "political gesture more than something with a clear, technological impetus."
"We need to recognize we're in an integrated world. And this is something we need to adapt to rather than try to legislate our way out of," she said.
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.