Nearly two and a half years after the Trump administration threatened to ban TikTok in the United States if it did not divest from its Chinese owners, the Biden administration is now doing the same.
TikTok acknowledged to CNN this week that federal officials are demanding that the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform or risk a US ban on the app.
The new guidance comes from the multi-agency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), following years of negotiations between TikTok and the government agency. (CFIUS is the same group that forced a sale of Chinese-owned LGBTQ dating app Grindr earlier in 2019.)
The US government’s ultimatum represents an apparent escalation of pressure from Washington as more lawmakers once again raise national security concerns about the app. Suddenly, TikTok’s future in the United States seems more uncertain — but this time it comes after years of the app only expanding its reach across American culture.
Here’s what you need to know.
Some in Washington have raised concerns that the app could be infiltrated by the Chinese government to essentially spy on US users or access US user data. Others have raised the alarm about the possibility that the Chinese government could use the app to spread propaganda to an American audience. At the heart of both is the underlying concern that any company doing business in China will ultimately be governed by the laws of the Chinese Communist Party.
Other concerns raised are not unique to TikTok, but more generally about the potential of social media platforms to lead younger users down harmful rabbit holes.
If this latest development gives you déjà vu, it’s because it echoes the saga that TikTok was already going through in the United States, starting in 2020, when the Trump administration first threatened it with an executive order ban. injunction if it did not sell itself to an American company.
Oracle and Walmart were suggested as buyers, social media creators were livid, and TikTok began a lengthy legal battle against the US government. Some critics at the time cited then-President Donald Trump’s crusade against the app as political theater rooted in xenophobia, citing Trump’s unusual suggestion that the United States should get a “cut” of any deal if it were to sell the app to a American company forced. .
The Biden administration eventually rescinded the Trump-era executive order against TikTok, but replaced it with a broader directive aimed at investigating technology related to foreign adversaries, including China. Meanwhile, CFIUS continued negotiations to close a potential deal that would allow the app to continue operating in the United States. Then control started to pick up again in Washington.
Lawmakers renewed their investigation of TikTok over its ties to China through parent company ByteDance, after a report last year suggested US user data had been repeatedly accessed by China-based employees. TikTok has disputed the report.
In rare remarks earlier this month at a Harvard Business Review conference, TikTok CEO Shou Chew doubled down on the company’s previous commitments to address legislator concerns.
“The Chinese government has never actually asked us for US user data,” Chew said, “and we’ve said this officially, that even if we were asked, we wouldn’t provide it.” Chew added that “by default, all US user data is stored in the Oracle Cloud infrastructure” and “access to that data is fully controlled by US personnel.”
As for concerns that the Chinese government could use the app to spew propaganda at a US audience, Chew stressed that doing so would be bad for business, noting that about 60% of TikTok’s owners are global investors. “Disinformation and propaganda have no place on our platform, nor do our users expect it to,” he said.
In response to the CFIUS divestment request, a TikTok spokesperson told CNN this week that a change of ownership would not affect how US user data is accessed.
“If protecting national security is the goal, divestment will not solve the problem,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said in a statement. “A change of ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access. The best way to address national security concerns is with the transparent, US-based protection of US user data and systems, with robust monitoring, vetting and third-party verification, which we are already implementing.”
TikTok is really only a national security risk to the extent that the Chinese government may have influence over TikTok or its parent company. China has national security laws that require companies under its jurisdiction to cooperate in a wide variety of security activities. The main problem is that the public has few ways to verify if and how that leverage has been applied. (TikTok doesn’t work in China, but ByteDance does.)
Privacy and security researchers who have looked at the TikTok app under the hood say that, to their knowledge, TikTok is not much different from other social networks in terms of the data it collects or how it communicates with corporate servers. That’s still a lot of personally revealing information, but it doesn’t mean the TikTok app itself is inherently malicious or some kind of spyware.
That’s why the concern really focuses on TikTok and ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government, and why the Biden administration is urging TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their shares.
India banned TikTok in the summer of 2020, following a violent border dispute between the country and China, in a move that abruptly disconnected the more than 200 million users the app had amassed there.
While a number of other countries, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have stopped banning the app on personal devices, they recently issued a ban on TikTok on official government devices.
Late last year, President Joe Biden signed legislation banning TikTok on federal government devices, and more than half of US states have issued a similar mandate at the state level. A TikTok spokesperson previously called this ban “little more than political theater”.
“The ban on TikTok on federal devices was passed without consultation in December, and unfortunately that approach has served as a blueprint for other world governments,” the spokesperson added.