Technology

Biden’s options on TikTok narrow after Beijing pushes back

This month, the White House endorsed a bipartisan Senate bill that would give the Commerce Department the clear power to ban any app that endangered Americans’ security.

The White House has pushed for a sale of Tiktok, concerned that the app poses a national security risk by giving China access to the personal data of American users. Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Biden administration recently told TikTok that it wanted the app’s Chinese owners to sell the app or face a possible ban in the United States. But that plan hit a roadblock Thursday, when Beijing said it would oppose a sale.

The announcement scrambled the debate over the future of the app, leaving the White House with few if any clear options.

President Joe Biden’s narrow menu now includes trying to ban the app — the other side of the administration’s threat. But that would be very difficult without congressional help. Or, experts said, he could try to push a sale anyway, through a government body that vets foreign companies, essentially daring Beijing to make good on its opposition.

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TikTok on the Clock

“He has to make a choice: Does he want to have a confrontation with China over TikTok?” said James A. Lewis, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

A Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesperson said at a news conference Thursday that the country would “firmly oppose” the sale of the app. Forcing such a transaction would “seriously undermine the confidence of investors from various countries, including China, to invest in the United States,” she added.

Her rebuke of the Biden administration arrived just hours before TikTok’s CEO testified in front of Congress for the first time. CEO Shou Chew faced roughly five hours of harsh questioning from lawmakers of both parties about China’s ties to the company, data privacy and the app’s effects on children. Many lawmakers cited the Chinese statement as evidence that the app could be subject to Beijing’s sway.

Shou Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, testifies during a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing on TikTok and its impact on data privacy and online harms.
Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

The administration has long feared that Beijing could compel TikTok to hand over the sensitive data of American users, or use its powerful content recommendation algorithm to spread propaganda. It has been negotiating a deal that would allow the app to continue operating in the United States if it stored its U.S. user data on domestic servers.

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But senior administration officials have balked at that proposal, and recently made it clear that they would rather see the app’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, sell it.

Now, the administration will need to weigh whether to push banning the app, cutting it off from its 150 million U.S. users. But that is legally fraught: Federal courts ruled that former President Donald Trump didn’t have the authority to ban TikTok from Apple’s and Google’s app stores.

This month, the White House endorsed a bipartisan Senate bill that would give the Commerce Department the clear power to ban any app that endangered Americans’ security. If it passes, the administration is likely to be on stronger legal ground in banning TikTok.

The administration could also revisit the deal it had negotiated for TikTok to store the data of its U.S. users on Oracle servers in the United States. Oracle would also monitor how TikTok’s algorithm recommended content, as a possible hedge against the app’s being used to spread Chinese government disinformation and propaganda.

But that proposal was met with skepticism from some of the administration’s top players, including at the Justice Department and in the White House, leading the administration to push for a sale.

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A spokesperson for the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Handling TikTok has grown only more complicated since Trump urged ByteDance to sell it in 2020. Afterward, China revised a list of protected technologies, which analysts say would require ByteDance to obtain government permission to sell the app to a U.S. buyer. TikTok’s most valuable technology is its recommendations algorithm, the source of its success attracting and retaining users around the world.

In addition, the court rulings against banning TikTok from the app stores took away crucial leverage that the White House had used to get ByteDance to consider selling.

Any decision to remove the app, either somehow banning it in the United States or blocking further downloads, may also be more politically fraught for Biden than it would have been for Trump. TikTok has millions more users in the United States than it had in 2020.

But the hearing with Chew on Thursday showed that political demand for action is building in Washington. About four dozen lawmakers took aim at Chew, many accusing his company of close ties to the Chinese government.

He tried to distance himself and TikTok from China, but lawmakers were vocal in their skepticism.

“When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, you indicated interest in taking steps to earn our trust,” said Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass. “And, to me, it hasn’t happened today so far.”

Repeatedly, Chew told lawmakers that the company’s plan to keep user information in the United States on servers operated by Oracle, which it calls Project Texas, would address their concerns. But they did not seem to buy it.

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“With all due respect, the ‘No company can be perfect’ line has been used way too much today,” said Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn. “Clearly, in the three-plus hours you’ve been before us today, what you’re saying about Project Texas just doesn’t pass the smell test.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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