The Biden administration has been negotiating with TikTok for two years to address government concerns that the popular Chinese video app poses a national security risk. But as negotiations dragged on, state and federal lawmakers grew impatient and took matters into their own hands.
In the past few weeks, at least 14 states have banned the use of TikTok on government-issued devices. In Congress, lawmakers are expected to vote this week on a sweeping spending bill that would include a ban on TikTok on all federal government devices. Another bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last week would ban the app for everyone in the United States. Additionally, the Indiana attorney general has sued TikTok, accusing the company of deceiving the app about the security and privacy risks it poses.
The Trump administration’s effort, which began several years ago, has morphed into an increasingly bipartisan issue. Politicians on both sides have expressed concern that the app could spy on U.S. users and hand sensitive data, including location information, into the hands of the Chinese government.
Federal officials have also raised concerns about how China could use videos streamed by the app through the TikTok algorithm to influence Americans by pushing highly customized videos to users based on their profiles and interests. FBI Director Christopher Wray warn Last month, the Chinese government could use TikTok to conduct “influence operations,” or attempt to use the app to infiltrate and compromise devices.
“It’s a general concern right now — not just Republicans, not just Democrats,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat who joined Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher and other lawmakers last week in announcing the Legislation to ban TikTok in the US.
He added: “The voice will be louder next year, unless there are major changes to the way TikTok operates in the United States and its ownership structure is adjusted.”
The bans are part of escalating tensions between the United States and China over global technology and economic leadership. The Biden administration and Beijing have rolled out massive national government spending plans to build technology supply chains within their borders, effectively ending decades of global trade policy in an arms race for chipmaking, electric vehicles and battery production.
Criticism of TikTok and other Chinese companies has become a common talking point in Washington and state capitals.
U.S. officials have argued that TikTok, which is owned by China-based ByteDance and has an estimated 100 million users in the U.S., could share sensitive data about Americans’ locations, personal habits and interests with the Chinese government. The app is especially popular with young people. Two-thirds of American teens use TikTok, second only to YouTube in popularity, according to the Pew Research Center.
TikTok has long denied sharing data with Chinese government officials and has sought to distance itself from its parent company. The company noted that its incorporation in the Cayman Islands and its offices in New York, Los Angeles, Singapore and Washington, D.C., demonstrate that the service operates outside of China.
But Washington has been skeptical. Its investigation into the app — run by a multi-agency group called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — began with the Trump administration. In 2020, President Donald J. Trump sought to ban the service from Apple and Google’s app stores unless the business was sold to an American company. But a federal court struck down the ban, and Mr. Trump left office without resolving the issue.
Since then, the company has been in talks with the Biden administration to change the way the company stores and maintains access to U.S. user data.
In presentations to Biden administration and intelligence officials, TikTok detailed an elaborate plan to store U.S. user data on Oracle servers and build a wall to prevent ByteDance employees or Chinese government officials from accessing the data possibility.
Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokeswoman, said in an email Monday that the plan would “meaningfully address any safety concerns raised at the federal and state levels” and that the company would provide government and Independent oversight to address concerns about its content recommendations and access to US user data.
“Politicians with national security concerns should encourage the government to end the national security review of TikTok,” Ms. Oberwetter wrote. “Further measures are unnecessary and punitive; they send a chilling message to foreign tech companies looking to do business in the US and offer globally interoperable experiences to compete with other global platforms.”
A spokesman for the Treasury Department, which oversees a national security review of the app, declined to comment. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment last week when asked about legislation to ban TikTok on federal government devices.
“I know this just happened, so we’re going to let Congress move forward with their process on that,” she said. She added that TikTok is one of a series of apps that have been disallowed “on White House and other federal government work devices” for security reasons.
In September, President Biden directed CFIUS to consider whether the transactions it reviewed could potentially allow foreign entities to exploit data on Americans. The administration has also been working on another executive order that would bring greater scrutiny of how foreign actors obtain data on Americans. It’s unclear if — and if — it will be released.
Lawmakers are tired of waiting for the outcome.
“My patience is wearing thin,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in an email. He has yet to sign legislation to ban TikTok, but has been an outspoken critic of the company and has voiced support for states that ban TikTok on government devices.
A bill introduced by Senator Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) that would ban the app on federal government devices is included in an omnibus spending bill expected to vote in the coming days. The bill passed by the Senate would be the broadest restriction on the app to date.
“I hope this is a wake-up call for the government to take action,” Mr Hawley said in an interview. “This bill is an important and significant move against TikTok that sends a signal to all Americans that if it’s not safe for someone with a federal device to use it, should my child be on his or her phone? Use it? Maybe not.”
Republican governors have been particularly aggressive on the issue, announcing a ban on the app on state government devices. Governors of Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, MontanaNew Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma state, South Carolina, South Dakota TexasWashington, Utah and Virginia have all announced bans in the past three weeks. Nebraska TikTok banned on state-issued devices in 2020.
Rules in some states include bans on other Chinese apps and telecommunications providers, such as WeChat and Huawei. The Maryland operation expanded to include certain Russian-influenced products, such as antivirus software Kaspersky.
The Pentagon warned the military in December 2019 of “potential risks associated with the use of the TikTok app,” prompting the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard to subsequently ban the app on government devices.
Restrictions on government-issued devices can be enforced by blocking or restricting software downloaded by certain apps on official devices. The rules would not prevent government employees from downloading the app on personal devices.
Banning TikTok for all U.S. users will face more challenges. Despite warnings from officials, consumers continue to clamor for the app and may fight back. In addition, Kurt Opsahl, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a free speech group, said bipartisan legislation in Congress to limit consumer use of the app sparked a Concerns about the First Amendment.
“For those who use the app, it is taking away a form of communication as a way of presenting themselves to the world, in some cases for political speeches and commentary,” Mr Opsar said. Say. “A complete ban is not the right way to solve the problem.”