Time may be running out in the U.S. for Chinese-owned entertainment platform TikTok, with the White House on Thursday supporting proposed legislation that would effectively ban the app over concerns about the safety of the data of the 100 million Americans who use the trendy video platform.
“The bottom line is that when it comes to potential threats to our national security, when it comes to the safety of Americans, when it comes to privacy, we're going to speak out, and we’re going to be very clear about that, and the president has been over the last two years,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
“And so we're asking Congress to act, we’re asking Congress to move forward with this bipartisan legislation, the RESTRICT Act ... and we're going to continue to do so,” Jean-Pierre said.
When asked if the administration had any concrete evidence that the platform has used data maliciously, she pointed to an ongoing study by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and said the White House was “not going to get ahead of their process.”
The CFIUS is an inter-agency panel that reviews certain transactions involving foreign investment and national security concerns.
Also Thursday, the U.K. prohibited the use of the app on government-issued devices – a move already imposed by the U.S., the European Union, Canada and India. And in the U.S., other entities, such as universities, have banned use of the app on their networks.
Earlier this week, TikTok leadership told U.S. media that the Biden administration has demanded that the platform’s Chinese owners divest their stakes or face a ban, issuing a statement that said “a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access.”
In recent weeks, the company has been promoting its $1.5 billion plan, called "Project Texas," for the Texas software company it has partnered with to construct a firewall between U.S. users and ownership in Beijing.
“The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, U.S.-based protection of U.S. user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing,” the statement read.
A Trojan giraffe or just a chocolate one?
TikTok, which is owned by China's ByteDance, is best known for its bite-sized dance videos and unconventional recipes — one video providing a tutorial for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos macaroni and cheese provoked more than 24,000 reactions, including one commenter who described the recipe as “worse than first-degree murder.” It also has offered some truly revelatory feats of food engineering, like the French pastry chef who made an impressively realistic 8-foot-tall giraffe out of chocolate.
But critics of the platform say its close ties to the Chinese government make it a Trojan horse: Once the compelling app gains entry to users’ devices, it then has access to their data and information.
Earlier in March, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced the RESTRICT Act, which stands for “Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology.”
“Over the past several years, foreign adversaries of the United States have encroached on American markets through technology products that steal sensitive location and identifying information of U.S. citizens, including social media platforms like TikTok,” said Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat. “This dangerous new internet infrastructure poses serious risks to our nation’s economic and national security.”
Senator Mark Warner, also a Democrat, one of the bill’s main sponsors, is calling for “a comprehensive, risk-based approach that proactively tackles sources of potentially dangerous technology before they gain a foothold in America, so we aren’t playing Whac-A-Mole [dealing with a recurring problem with no solution] and scrambling to catch up once they’re already ubiquitous.”
This is not the first time the White House has gone after the popular video service — the Trump administration also pushed the platform to divest. In 2020, CFIUS unanimously recommended that ByteDance divest the platform. The company tried to make a deal with Walmart, the largest U.S. retailer, and Austin, Texas-based Oracle Corp. to shift its assets into a new entity.
But analysts are divided on the next move.
“A forced sale is the right move,” said Lindsay Gorman, senior fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“The app gives a name and a face to the export of China’s surveillance state around the world. But now there’s bipartisan consensus that TikTok poses a national security threat to the United States’ democracy. The China tech threat — today exemplified by TikTok — may be the only thing Congress agrees on,” Gorman said.
Caitlin Chin, a fellow with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said stopping TikTok won’t solve the larger issue over apps using data maliciously.
“The strongest approach would be for Congress to establish comprehensive rules across the entire data ecosystem that would limit how all companies — including TikTok — use personal information in ways that could amplify the spread of harmful content,” she said.
“Policymakers should take popular interest in TikTok as an opportunity to implement industrywide protections that could benefit all of society, rather than just a messaging tool primarily geared toward the Chinese Communist Party,” Chin said.
Some information in this article came from Reuters.