The Biden administration has negotiated with TikTok for two years to resolve the government’s concerns that the popular Chinese-owned video app poses a national security risk. But as talks drag on, state and federal lawmakers have become impatient and taken matters into their own hands.
In the past several weeks, at least 14 states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices. In Congress, lawmakers are expected to vote this week on a sweeping spending bill that includes a ban of TikTok on all federal government devices. A separate bipartisan bill, which was introduced in Congress last week, would ban the app for everyone in the United States. In addition, Indiana’s state attorney general has sued TikTok, accusing the company of being deceptive about the security and privacy risks the app poses.
What started a few years ago as an effort from the Trump administration has evolved into an increasingly bipartisan issue. Politicians of both parties share concerns that the app could surveil users in the United States and put sensitive data, including location information, into the hands of China’s government.
Federal officials have also expressed fear around how China could use the app to sway Americans through videos delivered through TikTok’s algorithm that pushes highly tailored videos to users based on their profiles and interests. Christopher Wray, the F.B.I.’s director, warned last month that the Chinese government could use TikTok for “influence operations,” or try to use the app to infiltrate and compromise devices.
“This is a widespread concern at this point — it’s not just Republicans, it’s not just Democrats,” said Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi, Democrat of Illinois, who last week joined Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a Republican, and other lawmakers in announcing legislation to ban TikTok in the United States. “It’s going to get even louder over the next year unless significant changes are made with regard to how TikTok is run in the United States and its ownership structure has adjusted.”
The bans are part of escalating tensions between the United States and China over global technology and economic leadership. The Biden administration and Beijing have introduced huge national government spending programs to build technology supply chains within their own borders, effectively ending decades of global trade policy, in an arms race for chip manufacturing and electric vehicle and battery production.
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In Washington and in state capitals, criticism of TikTok and other Chinese companies has become a common talking point.
U.S. officials have argued that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese-based ByteDance and has an estimated 100 million users in the U.S., can share sensitive data about the location, personal habits and interests of Americans with the Chinese government. The app is particularly popular with young people. Two-thirds of U.S. teenagers use TikTok, making it second in popularity only to YouTube, according to the Pew Research Center.
TikTok has long denied that it shares data with Chinese government officials, and it has tried to distance itself from its parent company. The company points to its incorporation in the Cayman Islands and its offices in New York, Los Angeles, Singapore and Washington, D.C., as proof that the service’s operations are anchored outside China.
But Washington has kept a skeptical stance. Its investigation into the app — run by a multiagency group called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — began under the Trump administration. In 2020, President Donald Trump tried to ban the service from Apple’s and Google’s app stores unless the business was sold to an American company. But multiple federal courts struck down the ban and Mr. Trump left office without resolving the issue.
Since then, the company has been locked in negotiations with the Biden administration over changes to how the company stores and accesses data of U.S. users.
In a presentation to Biden administration and intelligence officials, TikTok detailed an elaborate plan to have U.S. user data stored on Oracle servers and to erect walls that would block the possibility of access to that data by ByteDance employees or Chinese government officials.
Brooke Oberwetter, a spokeswoman for TikTok, said in an email on Monday that the plan would “meaningfully address any security concerns that have been raised at both the federal and state level,” and that the company would offer government and independent oversight to address concerns about its content recommendations and access to U.S. user data.
“Politicians with national security concerns should encourage the administration to conclude its national security review of TikTok,” Ms. Oberwetter wrote. “Further measures are unnecessary and punitive; they send a chilling message to foreign tech companies wishing to do business in the U.S. and deliver globally interoperable experiences to compete alongside other global platforms.”
A spokesman for the Treasury Department, which is overseeing the national security review of the app, declined to comment. The White House press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, declined to take a position on the legislation banning TikTok on federal government devices when asked about it last week.
“I know that this just happened, so we’re going to let Congress move forward with their processes on this,” she said. She added that TikTok was one of a range of applications that were already not allowed “on the White House and other federal government work equipment for security reasons.”
In September, President Biden directed the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to consider whether deals it vets have the potential for a foreign entity to take advantage of Americans’ data. The administration has also been working on another executive order that would apply more scrutiny to how foreign actors could obtain Americans’ data. It is not clear if — and whether — it will be released.
Lawmakers are tired of waiting to see how it plays out.
“My patience is wearing thin,” Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat of Virginia and member of the intelligence committee, said in an email. He has not signed on to legislation to ban TikTok but has been a vocal critic of the company and expressed his support for states that have banned TikTok on government devices.
A bill introduced by the Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, that would ban the app on federal government devices was included in the omnibus spending bill expected to be voted on in the coming days. The bill, which has already passed through the Senate, would be the broadest restriction on the app yet.
“I hope this serves as a wake-up call for the administration to get moving,” Mr. Hawley said in an interview. “This bill is an important and major move against TikTok and sends a signal to all Americans that if it is not safe for someone who has a federal device to have it, should my kid have it on his or her phone? Maybe not.”
Republican governors have particularly been active on the issue, announcing prohibitions of the app on state government devices. Governors in Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Virginia have all announced bans in the past three weeks. Nebraska banned TikTok from state-issued devices in 2020.
Some of the states’ rules include bans on other Chinese apps and telecommunications vendors such as WeChat and Huawei. Maryland’s action extended to certain Russian-influenced products like Kaspersky, an antivirus software.
The Pentagon warned military branches about the “potential risk associated with using the TikTok app” in December 2019, prompting subsequent bans of the app on government devices from the U.S. Army, the Marine Corps., the Air Force and the Coast Guard.
The restrictions on government-issued devices can be enforced through software that blocks or sets limits on certain apps from being downloaded on official equipment. The rules do not prevent a government employee from downloading the app on a personal device.
A ban on TikTok for all U.S. users would face more challenges. Consumers continue to clamor for the app despite warnings from officials, and could push back. In addition, the bipartisan bill in Congress restricting consumers from using the app raises First Amendment concerns, said Kurt Opsahl, the general counsel for Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for free speech.
“It is taking away a means of communication for people who use the app as a way to present themselves to the world and in some cases for political speech and commentary,” Mr. Opsahl said. “A complete ban is not the right solution to the problem.”