The Biden administration is stepping up its crackdown on TikTok, threatening a US ban on the world’s most popular app unless the company divests from its Chinese ownership.
Public concerns over the current administration’s hit app have grown significantly in recent days. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the US government is again trying to separate the app from its Chinese owners by pushing the sale through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS).
TikTok pushed back against the White House’s new demand, arguing that the proposed solution would not address the US government’s concerns. TikTok has argued that the company’s own unusual gesture of self-regulation — undergoing an audit by US-based tech giant Oracle, among other measures — will offer more resolution.
“If the goal is to protect national security, then the administration does not solve the problem. the change in ownership will not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan told TechCrunch. “The best way to address national security concerns is through transparent, U.S.-centric protections for U.S. users’ data and systems, and the robust third-party monitoring, verification and inspection we already have in place.”
That plan, known as Project Texas, is part of an ongoing TikTok charm offensive in the US that seeks to portray the company’s US operations as transparent and accountable. The campaign includes about $1.5 billion in infrastructure spending and corporate restructuring to build a wall between the company’s U.S. business and the Chinese.
In an interview with the Journal, TikTok CEO Zhou Ziqiu argued that the Texas project would put US data beyond the reach of the Chinese government. He declined to answer whether the founders of TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, would be open to opting out of the sale.
“I welcome input on what other risk is not addressed by this,” Chu said in an interview. “So far I haven’t heard anything that can’t really be solved with that.”
The TikTok national security saga began during the Trump administration. Threats from the Trump White House against the company eventually ended up forcing TikTok to sell its US operations to Oracle in late 2020. At the time, TikTok also rejected a buyout offer from Microsoft, but ultimately didn’t sell to Oracle either.
The deal was delayed indefinitely when Biden took office the following year amid shifting White House priorities and successful court challenges by TikTok parent company ByteDance.
TikTok’s strange relationship with Oracle took a new turn last year, with the company moving US-based user data to Oracle’s internal servers. Around the same time, an explosive BuzzFeed story documented internal TikTok discussions in which Chinese employees admitted to having open access to American user data, contrary to the company’s assurances.
Since then, the Biden administration has expressed concern about the Chinese hacking app, which has taken the world by storm and ousted US-based social media executives.
On Thursday, Emily Baker-White, who has published a series of cover stories about TikTok and national security concerns, reported that the FBI and the Justice Department are both investigating the company over concerns about surveillance of American journalists. On Thursday, the UK also announced a ban on TikTok for government devices, a move the US government had previously implemented. In recent months, some U.S.-based colleges have also followed suit, complying with guidelines issued by state-level executive orders restricting the app.
During a recent Senate intelligence hearing, FBI Director Chris Wray raised his agency’s concerns about the app and its ties to an authoritarian state that has increasingly hostile relations with the U.S. Wray confirmed his belief that the Chinese government could compel TikTok’s U.S. operation. hand it over. software controls that affect millions of Americans. If that were to happen, Ray argued, there might not be “outward signs” that the app was compromised at all.
“Something very sacred in our country, the distinction between the private sector and the public sector, that’s a line that doesn’t exist in the way the CCP operates,” Ray said.
The timing of the Biden administration’s new effort to raise awareness about TikTok is perhaps no coincidence. Next week, TikTok CEO Zhou Zichu will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the executive’s first time in Congress. The hearing, scheduled for March 23, will examine TikTok’s “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platform’s impact on children and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” according to the now Republican-led committee.
“Americans deserve to know how these actions affect their privacy and data security, and what steps TikTok is taking to protect our children from online and offline harm,” said Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rogers.