Nearly two-and-a-half years after the Trump administration threatened to ban TikTok in the United States if it didn’t divest from its Chinese owners, the Biden administration is now doing the same.
TikTok acknowledged to CNN this week that federal officials are demanding the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk facing a US ban of the app.
The new directive comes from the multiagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), following years of negotiations between TikTok and the government body. (CFIUS is the same group that previously forced a sale of LGBTQ dating app Grindr from Chinese ownership back in 2019.)
The ultimatum from the US government represents an apparent escalation in pressure from Washington as more lawmakers once again raise national security concerns about the app. Suddenly, TikTok’s future in the United States appears more uncertain – but this time, it comes after years in which the app has only broadened its reach over American culture.
Here’s what you should know.
Some in Washington have expressed concerns that the app could be infiltrated by the Chinese government to essentially spy on American users or gain access to US user data. Others have raised alarms over the possibility that the Chinese government could use the app to spread propaganda to a US audience. At the heart of both is an underlying concern that any company doing business in China ultimately falls under Chinese Communist Party laws.
Other concerns raised are not unique to TikTok, but more broadly about the potential for social media platforms to lead younger users down harmful rabbit holes.
If this latest development is giving you déjà vu, that’s because it echoes the saga TikTok already went through in the United States that kicked off in 2020, when the Trump administration first threatened it with a ban via executive order if it didn’t sell itself to a US-based company.
Oracle and Walmart were suggested as buyers, social media creators were in a frenzy, and TikTok kicked off a lengthy legal battle against the US government. Some critics at the time blasted then-president Donald Trump’s crusade against the app as political theater rooted in xenophobia, calling out Trump’s unusual suggestion that the United States should get a “cut” of any deal if it forced the app’s sale to an American firm.
The Biden administration eventually rescinded the Trump-era executive order targeting TikTok, but replaced it with a broader directive focused on investigating technology linked to foreign adversaries, including China. Meanwhile, CFIUS continued negotiations to strike a possible deal that would allow the app to continue operating in the United States. Then scrutiny began to kick up again in Washington.
Lawmakers renewed their scrutiny of TikTok for its ties to China through its 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 prior commitments to address the lawmakers’ concerns.
“The Chinese government has actually never asked us for US user data,” Chew said, “and we’ve said this on the record, that even if we where asked for that, we will not provide that.” Chew added that “all US user data is stored, by default, in the Oracle Cloud infrastructure” and “access to that data is completely controlled by US personnel.”
As for the concerns that the Chinese government might use the app to spew propaganda to a US audience, Chew emphasized that this would be bad for business, noting that some 60% of TikTok’s owners are global investors. “Misinformation and propaganda has no place on our platform, and our users do not expect that,” he said.
In response to the CFIUS divestiture request, a TikTok spokesperson told CNN this week that a change in ownership wouldn’t impact how US user data is accessed.
“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said in a statement. “A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access. The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, US-based protection of US user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing.”
TikTok is really only a national security risk insofar as the Chinese government may have leverage over TikTok or its parent company. China has national security laws that require companies under its jurisdiction to cooperate with a broad range of security activities. The main issue is that the public has few ways of verifying whether or how that leverage has been exercised. (TikTok doesn’t operate in China, but ByteDance does.)
Privacy and security researchers who have looked under the hood at TikTok’s app say that, as far as they can tell, TikTok isn’t much different from other social networks in terms of the data it collects or how it communicates with company servers. That’s still a lot of personally revealing information, but it doesn’t imply that TikTok’s app itself is inherently malicious or a kind of spyware.
That’s why the concern really focuses on TikTok and ByteDance’s relationship to the Chinese government, and why the Biden administration is pushing for TikTok’s Chinese owners to sell their shares.
India banned TikTok in the summer of 2020, following a violent border clash between the country and China, in a move that abruptly disconnected the more than 200 million users the app had amassed there.
While stopping short of banning the app on personal devices, a number of other countries, including the United States, Canada and United Kingdom have recently enacted bans of TikTok on official, government devices.
Late last year, President Joe Biden signed legislation prohibiting TikTok on federal government devices, and more than half of US states have enacted a similar mandate at the state level. A TikTok spokesperson previously blasted this ban as “little more than political theater.”
“The ban of TikTok on federal devices passed in December without any deliberation, and unfortunately that approach has served as a blueprint for other world governments,” the spokesperson added.