WASHIGNTON – Nearly two-and-a-half years after the Trump administration threatened to ban TikTok in the United States if it didn’t divest from its Chinese owners, the Biden administration is now doing the same. TikTok acknowledged to CNN this week that federal officials are demanding the app’s Chinese owners sell their stake in the social media platform, or risk facing a US ban of the app. The new directive comes from the multiagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), following years of negotiations between TikTok and the government body. The ultimatum from the US government represents an apparent escalation in pressure from Washington as more lawmakers once again raise national security concerns about the app. Suddenly, TikTok’s future in the United States appears more uncertain, but this time, it comes after years in which the app has only broadened its reach over American culture. Some in Washington have expressed concerns that the app could be infiltrated by the Chinese government to essentially spy on American users or gain access to US user data. Others have raised alarms over the possibility that the Chinese government could use the app to spread propaganda to a US audience. At the heart of both is an underlying concern that any company doing business in China ultimately falls under Chinese Communist Party laws.
Other concerns raised are not unique to TikTok, but more broadly about the potential for social media platforms to lead younger users down harmful rabbit holes. If this latest development is giving you déjà vu, that’s because it echoes the saga TikTok already went through in the United States that kicked off in 2020, when the Trump administration first threatened it with a ban via executive order if it didn’t sell itself to a US-based company. Oracle and Walmart were suggested as buyers, social media creators were in a frenzy, and TikTok kicked off a lengthy legal battle against the US government. Some critics at the time blasted the then-president Donald Trump’s crusade against the app as political theater rooted in xenophobia, calling out Trump’s unusual suggestion that the United States should get a “cut” of any deal if it forced the app’s sale to an American firm. The Biden administration eventually rescinded the Trumpera executive order targeting TikTok, but replaced it with a broader directive focused on investigating technology linked to foreign adversaries, including China. Lawmakers renewed their scrutiny of TikTok for its ties to China through its parent company, Byte- Dance, after a report last year suggested US user data had been repeatedly accessed by China-based employees. TikTok has disputed the report. In rare remarks earlier this month at a Harvard Business Review conference, Tik- Tok CEO Shou Chew doubled down on the company’s prior commitments to address the lawmakers’ concerns. “The Chinese government has actually never asked us for US user data,” Chew said, “and we’ve said this on the record, that even if we where asked for that, we will not provide that.” Chew added that “all US user data is stored, by default, in the Oracle Cloud infrastructure” and “access to that data is completely controlled by US personnel.”
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