The US is once again pressuring TikTok’s Chinese owners to divest from the app. Here’s why
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
Data collection concerns
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.