The US government is stepping up its pressure campaign against TikTok

by Ana Lopez

The Biden administration is escalating its pressure campaign against TikTok, threatening a US ban on the world’s most popular app if the company doesn’t split with its Chinese ownership.

The current government’s public concern about the popular app has increased 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 and is demanding its sale through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS).

TikTok opposed the White House’s new demand, arguing that the proposed solution would not address the concerns of the US government. TikTok claims the company’s own unusual self-regulatory gesture — which included being audited by US-based tech giant Oracle — would provide more resolution.

“If protecting national security is the goal, divestment does not solve the problem: A change of ownership would not impose new restrictions on data flows or access,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan told businessupdates.org. “The best way to address national security concerns is with the transparent, US-based protection of US user data and systems, with robust monitoring, vetting, and third-party verification, which we are already implementing.”

That program, known as Project Texas, is part of an ongoing TikTok charm offensive in the US that attempts to portray the company’s US operations as transparent and accountable. The campaign involves about $1.5 billion in infrastructure spending and corporate reorganization to establish a firewall between the company’s US operations and Chinese ownership.

In an interview with the Journal, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew argued that Project Texas would put U.S. data out of reach of the Chinese government. He declined to answer whether the founders of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance would be open to divestment.

“I welcome feedback on whatever other risk we’re talking about that this isn’t addressing,” Chew said in the interview. “So far I have not heard anything that cannot actually be solved with this.”

The TikTok national security saga began during the Trump administration. Trump White House threats against the company eventually culminated in a plan to force TikTok to sell its US operations to Oracle by the end of 2020. TikTok also rejected a takeover offer from Microsoft at the time, but ultimately did not sell to Oracle either.

The deal was put on hold indefinitely when the Biden took office the following year, due to shifting White House priorities and a spate of successful lawsuits by TikTok parent company ByteDance.

Last year, TikTok’s strange relationship with Oracle turned a new page, with the company shifting data on US-based users to Oracle’s domestic servers. Around the same time, a explosive story from BuzzFeed documented internal TikTok discussions in which Chinese employees admitted to open access to data on US users – reporting that went against the company’s reassurances.

Since then, the Biden administration has voiced its own concerns about the popular Chinese app, which has taken the world by storm and displaced US-based social media incumbents.

On Thursday, Emily Baker-White, who has published a number of illuminating stories about TikTok and national security concerns, reported that the FBI and Justice Department both investigate the company about concerns it has surveyed American journalists. The UK also announced a TikTok ban on government devices on Thursday — a move the US government had previously made. In recent months, some US-based colleges have also followed suit, following guidelines issued by state-level executive orders restricting the app.

In a recent Senate Intelligence hearing, FBI Director Chris Wray voiced concerns from his own agency about the app and its ties to an authoritarian state with an increasingly hostile relationship with the US. Wray reaffirmed his belief that the Chinese government could force TikTok’s US operation to hand over control of the software, affecting many millions of Americans. If that were to happen, Wray argued that there may not be any “outward signs” that indicate the app has been compromised in the first place.

“Something that is very sacred in our country – the difference between the private sector and the public sector – that is a line that does not exist in the way the CCP operates,” Wray said.

The timing of the Biden administration’s new attempts to sound the alarm about TikTok is likely not random. Next week, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testifying before the House Energy and Commerce committee, the CEO’s first time before Congress. The hearing, scheduled for March 23, will examine TikTok’s “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platform’s impact on children and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party,” the now Republican-led committee said.

“Americans deserve to know how these actions affect their privacy and data security, and what actions TikTok is taking to protect our children from online and offline harm,” said committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

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