Why the US wants to ban TikTok

TThe contentious debate over TikTok’s future reached a new high on Wednesday after the Biden administration threatened a nationwide ban on the popular video-sharing app unless its Chinese owner vowed to sell its stake in the company , TikTok confirmed to TIME. The most recent divestment request was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The apparent ultimatum from the United States Committee on Foreign Investments (CFIUS) marks a major escalation by White House officials in the long-running negotiations between the company’s Beijing-based owner, ByteDance, and federal officials, who say TikTok’s connection to China poses a potential threat to national security.

Why does the US want to ban TikTok?

Since its launch in 2016, the app’s popularity has grown to over 1 billion active users, including more than 100 million in the US. However, its growth has come with concerns from federal officials and security experts that China’s Communist Party (CCP) could have unlimited access to sensitive data the company collects about Americans. As a Chinese company, ByteDance is subject to a national security law that requires it to provide data to Chinese authorities upon request.

“The biggest problem is that users are largely unaware of the true risks of foreign governments using their user data,” said Anton Dahbura, executive director of Johns Hopkins University’s Information Security Institute. “People would be shocked at how our footprints of breadcrumbs can be used in different ways by our mobile devices and other platforms, which can pose a threat to national security.”

The push to ban TikTok in the US is largely being led by Republican lawmakers in Congress who fear ByteDance could use user data to track browsing history and location, potentially fueling misinformation efforts. Texas Republican Representative Michael McCaul, who is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that sponsored the bill banning TikTok, said, “Anyone who has downloaded TikTok onto their device gives the CCP a backdoor to all given his personal information. It’s a spy balloon in her phone.” A growing number of Democrats, who have not been so vocal about advancing these security measures in the past, are beginning to publicly show their support.

However, TikTok insists that the CFIUS divestment request will not address security concerns. “If protecting national security is the goal, a divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose new restrictions on data flow or access,” a TikTok spokesman said in a statement to TIME. “The best way to address national security concerns is transparent, US-based protection of US user data and systems with robust third-party monitoring, review, and verification that we already implement.”

Amid mounting political pressure, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Che is set to testify on Capitol Hill next week, where lawmakers from both parties are expected to spy on him about the app’s perceived security risks.

Which countries have already banned TikTok?

Several countries have already taken the step of cutting some level of ties to the platform.

In 2020, India imposed a ban on several Chinese-owned apps, including TikTok and WeChat, over privacy and security concerns amid ongoing tensions at the China-India border. Pakistan has temporarily banned TikTok at least four times, raising concerns the app promotes immoral content. The Afghan Taliban government banned the app in 2022 for “misleading youth”.

Meanwhile, a number of governments, including Canada, the United States, and Taiwan, have restricted access to the app on government-issued devices. On Thursday, the UK became the latest country to ban TikTok from government devices.

What does this mean for TikTok users?

The platform’s users are concerned about what a potential ban could mean for them, especially content creators who make a living from payments from TikTok’s Creator Fund and brand endorsements. Top earners on the platform can earn up to $250,000 for a sponsored post forbes. “So who’s going to tell the Biden administration that some of us have built our literal careers on TikTok and if it’s banned we’re actually going to have nothing?” tweeted a user.

Amid uncertainty about the app’s future, TikTokers have shared their complaints on the platform. “Well folks it was fun but it looks like it’s over for us. We learned a lot. We laughed. We cried,” says a user jokingly in a video with more than 100,000 views. The video’s top comment reads, “See you all on VPN Tok,” one of countless comments from users suggesting they will attempt to circumvent a potential ban by using a virtual private network to access the access app.

Banning TikTok could open the door for other companies like Meta’s Instagram to fill the video-sharing gap. In October, Twitter CEO Elon Musk said he was considering bringing back Vine, the short-form video app that was discontinued in 2019.

Will the sale make TikTok safer?

TikTok has been negotiating national security requirements with CFIUS for more than two years. Chew, CEO of TikTok, said so Wall Street Journal on Thursday that selling the company will not resolve US national security concerns over the app.

Instead, the social media platform has pledged to spend $1.5 billion to protect US user data and content from Chinese government access or influence. The plan calls for US-based Oracle Corp. to commission the storage of user data. “I welcome feedback on what other risks we’re talking about that aren’t addressed here,” Chew said. “So far I haven’t heard anything that can’t actually be solved with it.”

Shouzi Chew, Chief Executive Officer of TikTok Inc., during an interview at the TikTok office in New York, U.S., on Thursday, February 17, 2022. (Christopher Goodney - Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Shouzi Chew, Chief Executive Officer of TikTok Inc., during an interview at the TikTok office in New York, U.S. on Thursday, February 17, 2022.

Christopher Goodney—Bloomberg/Getty Images

TikTok has also said that 60% of ByteDance’s stock is owned by global investors, including American investment giants BlackRock, General Atlantic, and Sequoia. (However, like most startups, the founders of ByteDance hold a majority stake in the company.) Chew confirmed this diary that ByteDance has actively considered a public offering from TikTok, but added that “there is no concrete plan at this time”.

The debate over ownership of TikTok has become a major flashpoint in the US-China conflict, and poses a major challenge for the Biden administration as it grapples with the new reality of an internet dominated by non-American companies.

“I don’t realize that the sale would do much by itself,” says Harry Broadman, a former CFIUS official. “But this opens up a wider debate about what methods the US government will take to protect so-called personal information of US citizens. The topic of TikTok is a leitmotif for this conversation.”

“Divestments are just one avenue, one tool that could be used,” adds Broadman. “It’s the obvious option, but the question is, is that enough?”

Last week, the White House approved a bipartisan bill that would give the Commerce Department sweeping powers to ban or restrict TikTok and other foreign-rooted apps, despite efforts to ban a social media platform used by more than 100 million Americans , could be challenged the first amendment.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters Thursday that the US has yet to provide evidence that TikTok threatens its national security and uses the data security excuse to abuse its power to oppress foreign countries.

“The US should stop spreading disinformation about data security, stop oppressing the offending company, and create an open, fair and non-discriminatory environment for foreign companies to invest and operate in the US,” Wang said.

Broadman, who worked at CFIUS, said the committee is likely considering several other options, in addition to requiring TikTok’s parent company to sell its stake in the app. One option, he says, is to give TikTok approval for its “Project Texas” plan, which would subject the app to tighter government oversight than any US social media company has ever faced. The plan calls for hiring U.S. government-approved employees and board members to run a U.S.-based subsidiary of TikTok.

“The question for CFIUS now is whether their decision sets a precedent for the next case that’s ahead of them, whether it’s from China or another country,” Broadman says.

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write to Mariah Espada at [email protected] and Nik Popli at [email protected].

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