It’s déjà vu all over again: The Biden White House has told TikTok that Chinese parent company ByteDance must sell its ownership position in the popular video app or face a ban in the U.S., TikTok said on Wednesday. The U.S. government is demanding the divestiture on the basis of national security concerns.
The news was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. The U.S. government’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), an interagency group overseeing national security risks that is led by the Treasury Department, “recently” demanded that ByteDance’s Chinese owners divest TikTok, per the Journal.
Lawmakers in the U.S. (and other countries) perceive TikTok as a potential threat to user privacy and national security given the app’s Chinese ownership. The fear is that the Chinese government could access sensitive information via TikTok. According to TikTok, it has never shared user data with the Chinese Communist Party; the company also says Chinese authorities have not made any such requests.
In a statement, TikTok spokesperson Hilary McQuaide said, “If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: A change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access.” According to McQuaide, TikTok is already responding to U.S. concerns by putting in place “U.S.-based protection of U.S. user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting and verification.”
In the U.S., legislation introduced in Congress would grant President Biden the authority to ban TikTok under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The White House last week signaled its support of the bill.
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, whom ByteDance appointed to the role in April 2021, is scheduled to appear March 23 before the House Energy and Commerce Committee to testify on TikTok’s consumer privacy and data security practices.
It’s not the first time American politicians have tried to ban TikTok. Donald Trump, in the waning months of his term as U.S. president, issued an executive order that threatened to ban TikTok in the country unless ByteDance sold a controlling interest in TikTok to American investors. U.S. federal courts blocked Trump’s order. In June 2021, Biden officially revoked Trump’s executive orders seeking to ban TikTok while also launching an investigation into apps that have ties to “foreign adversaries” that may pose national security or data privacy risks.
TikTok, first launched in 2016, incorporated predecessor app Musical.ly after ByteDance’s acquisition of that company. TikTok’s Chinese ownership has led governments worldwide to be wary of the app. India, for one, in 2020 blocked TikTok and other Chinese apps in the country.
In attempting to address the Biden administration’s concerns, TikTok — under what it has dubbed Project Texas — formed a U.S.-based data security division and has an agreement with Oracle to store user app data in the U.S. In addition, TikTok has proposed giving Oracle the ability to review app and server code as well as creating an oversight board for the U.S. security division (that would not be subject to ByteDance control) comprising three members who would be screened by CFIUS.
According to the company’s own admission, ByteDance employees have used TikTok to spy on American citizens. In December 2022, ByteDance said that four of its employees violated company policy by inappropriately accessing data on U.S. TikTok users, including two journalists, in an attempt to track down the source of information leaks. ByteDance said it fired all four of the employees, two based in the U.S. and two in China. An internal ByteDance investigation found that the employees had accessed internet addresses and other data of two American reporters via their TikTok accounts to determine their approximate location, in an attempt to see whether the journalists had been in the vicinity of other ByteDance staffers.