Biden’s options on TikTok shrink after China pullback
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration recently told TikTok that it wants the app’s Chinese owners to sell the app or face a possible ban in the United States. But that plan hit a snag on Thursday, when Beijing said it would oppose a sale.
The announcement muddied the debate over the app’s future, leaving the White House with little to no clear options.
President Biden’s narrow menu now includes trying to ban the app — the other side of the administration’s threat. But it would be very difficult without the help of Congress. Or, experts say, he could try to push a sale anyway, through a government body that controls foreign companies, essentially defying Beijing to argue its opposition.
“He has to make a choice: does he want to have a confrontation with China over TikTok?” said James A. Lewis, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Commerce told a press conference on Thursday that the country would “strongly 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.
TikTok under surveillance
The massively popular video app is facing pressure over concerns over the handling of user data.
His rebuke of the Biden administration came just hours before the TikTok chief executive testified before Congress for the first time. The executive, Shou Chew, faced around five hours of harsh questioning from lawmakers on both sides about China’s ties to the company, data privacy and the app’s effects on people. children. Many lawmakers cited the Chinese statement as evidence that the app could come under Beijing’s sway.
The administration has long feared that Beijing could coerce TikTok into handing over sensitive US user data, or use its powerful content recommendation algorithm to spread propaganda. He brokered a deal that would allow the app to continue operating in the United States if it stored its US user data on national servers.
But senior administration officials have balked at the proposal and recently made it clear they would prefer to see the app’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, sell it.
Now the administration will have to weigh whether to push for a ban on the app, cutting it off from its 150 million U.S. users. But it’s legally cumbersome: Federal courts have ruled that President Donald J. Trump lacks the authority to ban TikTok from Apple and Google’s app stores.
This month, the White House approved a bipartisan Senate bill that would give the Commerce Department clear authority to ban any app that endangers the safety of Americans. If passed, the administration will likely be on a stronger legal basis to ban TikTok.
The administration could also revise the deal it brokered for TikTok to store its US users’ data on Oracle servers in America. Oracle would also monitor how TikTok’s algorithm recommended content, as a possible safeguard against the app being used to spread disinformation and Chinese government propaganda.
But that proposal has been met with skepticism from some key administration players, including at the Justice Department and the White House, leading the administration to push for a sale.
A White House spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The management of TikTok has only become more complicated since Mr. Trump urged ByteDance to sell it in 2020. Subsequently, China revised a list of protected technologies, which analysts said would require ByteDance to obtain the permission from the government to sell the app to a US buyer. TikTok’s most valuable technology is its recommendation algorithm, the source of its success in attracting and retaining users around the world.
Additionally, court rulings against banning TikTok from app stores removed crucial leverage the White House used to get ByteDance to consider selling.
Any move to remove the app, whether by somehow banning it in the US or blocking further downloads, may also be more politically burdensome for Mr Biden than it may be. would have been for Mr. Trump. TikTok has millions more users in the US than in 2020.
But the roughly five-hour hearing with Mr Chew on Thursday showed the political demand for action is growing in Washington. About four dozen lawmakers have targeted Mr. Chew, with many accusing his company of close ties to the Chinese government.
He tried to distance himself and TikTok from China, but lawmakers expressed skepticism.
“When we spoke a few weeks ago, you indicated your interest in taking steps to earn our trust,” said Rep. Lori Trahan of Massachusetts, a Democrat. “And, for me, that hasn’t happened today so far.”
On several occasions, Chew has told lawmakers that the company’s plan to keep user information in the United States on servers operated by Oracle, which he calls Project Texas, would address their concerns. But they didn’t seem to buy it.
“With all due respect, the ‘No business can be perfect’ line was overused today,” said Rep. Angie Craig, Democrat of Minnesota. “Obviously, in the over three hours you’ve been in front of us today, what you’re saying about the Texas project just doesn’t pass the smell test.”
David McCabe reported from Washington and Chang Che from Seoul.
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