The TikTok crackdown is going ticktock.
Since December, when Sen. Marco Rubio introduced legislation to ban the Chinese-owned platform from inside United States borders altogether, several local and international governments have imposed their own TikTok restrictions. More than 30 U.S. states now forbid TikTok use on state-owned devices—including public universities’ Wi-Fi networks—and federal employees have until the end of the month to scrub the app from government-linked gadgets, per White House orders. The European Union, Canada, and the United Kingdom have all followed suit. And Congress went even further this week: Sen. Mark Warner introduced the so-called RESTRICT Act in order to grant the Department of Commerce more power to “tackle national security threats from foreign tech” hailing from contentious nations like Russia, Iran, and, yes, China. Finally, as the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday evening, the Biden administration is demanding that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, divest its ownership in the influential short-form video app—or relinquish its ability to operate in the U.S. altogether.
It’s not the first time that TikTok’s largest market has posed a threat to the video platform’s existence. The question here, however, is whether the White House is serious this time—or whether there’s another strategy at play.
During the summer of 2020, a time when anti-Asian racism ramped up at home and ideological clashes with Chinese officials escalated abroad, President Donald Trump deemed TikTok a security threat and offered its executives an ultimatum: Sell your company to an American firm, or say goodbye to your millions of stateside users. There was reasonable concern over the fact that the app was owned by ByteDance, which had established links with the surveillance-happy Chinese Communist Party: a strategic partnership with the Asian government’s public relations department, a joint venture with a state-owned media business (which, ByteDance would claim in 2021, never came to fruition), an app that deliberately pushed pro-China propaganda to English-language readers, and collaborations with repressive police forces in Xinjiang. While these ties did not apply to TikTok specifically (ByteDance operates a popular equivalent in China, called Douyin), the video platform itself attracted suspicion in late 2019 when American users reported censorship of posts covering topics like Tibetan or Taiwanese sovereignty, or the then-flourishing Hong Kong protests. By the end of that year, U.S. lawmakers from both major parties had called for a national security probe into the TikTok-ByteDance relationship, focusing their concerns on content censorship as well as the potential for Chinese collection of sensitive U.S. data.
So it wasn’t unreasonable for Trump to seize upon such worries and entertain the prospects of either banning TikTok from app stores or forcing it under domestic corporate controls. He had a model in U.S. ally India, which banned the app nationwide in August 2020 following its military clashes with China. The problem was, the deal he negotiated by September to keep TikTok operating in the U.S. barely addressed critics’ legitimate concerns over the app, engendering suspicion that Trump’s crusade here was merely another plank for his anti-China xenophobia. As my colleague Jonathan L. Fischer explained at the time, the Trump-TikTok arrangement allowed ByteDance to retain 80 percent of the app’s equity, granted user-data oversight to Oracle—one of Trump’s favorite tech corporations—and included a stunty provision to redirect $5 billion from the sale toward a U.S. government–helmed anti–1619 Project educational campaign. In other words, it was not a serious solution to a potentially serious problem, as recognized by the multiple federal judges who nullified aspects of Trump’s order, before the Biden administration chucked it altogether in 2021.
At first, it didn’t seem like President Joe Biden would be as TikTok-hostile as his predecessor. Though he banned use of the app on staffers’ phones during his 2020 campaign, he’s since courted TikTok influencers in the Oval Office, and his staffers have formulated savvy plans to promote the administration on the platform (namely, by getting outsiders to film and post dispatches from their White House visits). Yet Biden also entered the White House determined to continue Trump’s “tough-on-China” agenda, in which TikTok was already wrapped up. To that effect, the current administration has firmed up anti-China multinational alliances, imposed business and trade restrictions, and shot down suspicious-looking Chinese-origin balloons. But the government didn’t suggest any major scrutiny of TikTok until last September, when it reached a preliminary security deal with the app that didn’t require it to change corporate ownership. It seems the pressure from state lawmakers and members of Congress is pushing Biden reluctantly in a more forceful direction on TikTok, egging him on with accusations of being “soft” on China.
There’s also the fact that yet more alleged TikTok misdeeds have been uncovered since Donald Trump left office. Last summer, BuzzFeed News reported that China-based ByteDance employees were illegally accessing U.S. user data through TikTok; in October, Forbes reported that Chinese ByteDance employees made plans to track the locations of specific U.S. citizens through TikTok, which the company denied; in December, some TikTok and ByteDance employees admitted that they’d used the video app to spy on American tech journalists from Forbes, BuzzFeed, and the Financial Times. [Update, March 17, 2023, at 2:43 p.m.: On Friday, the New York Times reported that the Justice Department has been investigating ByteDance’s alleged surveillance of journalists since late last year.] On top of that, researchers have raised concerns over the TikTok algorithm’s reported effects on young users’ mental health as well as its allegedly weak security infrastructure. And the data-privacy concerns still aren’t abating. All this, on top of Biden’s purported plans to wall off significant amounts of Chinese tech investment in the U.S., make TikTok an unavoidable headache for the president. Plus, the Chinese government holds minority stakes in ByteDance itself. Meanwhile, the app’s “Project Texas” initiative—a $1.5 billion company investment to assuage U.S. government concerns over Chinese access to American user data, Chinese state influence on the platform’s content, and cybersecurity weaknesses, all without severing ByteDance ties—hasn’t really improved TikTok’s reputation.
But what’s Biden’s actual game here? And which exact problems does he hope to solve by threatening a TikTok expulsion?
For one, it’s not clear what a ByteDance sale would accomplish, should one even go through. Republican Sens. Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio both told the Financial Times in December that they wouldn’t be satisfied with divestment alone if the final deal allowed ByteDance to retain stakes in TikTok (not unlikely, considering any divestment arrangement would require Chinese government terms and approval), or if the app’s data-collection practices weren’t entirely overhauled. TikTok, whose CEO will testify in front of Congress next week over company practices, likewise told the Wall Street Journal that “a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” and that Project Texas should provide for sufficient change. Even if one doubts Project Texas’ viability, the ownership point is a fair one. It’s not like U.S.-based social media platforms do a marvelous job of securing international user data; plus, in the Washington Post, British tech journalist Chris Stokel-Walker also pointed out that Chinese propaganda already infiltrates U.S.-based websites like Twitter and Instagram. Why would domestic ownership provide any reassurance on netizens’ privacy?
Yet if ByteDance holds on to TikTok and Biden agrees to ban the app, the U.S. would risk a significant public-image issue. For one, plenty of tech-savvy critics claim a TikTok ban would contradict American principles of free speech and media independence; other countries that forbid TikTok use include oppressive states like Afghanistan, Iran, and Azerbaijan, as well as backsliding democracies like India and Bangladesh. And yes, the youths really, really love TikTok; far from just copying memes and dances, they also tend to get their news on the app and organize social campaigns. Biden’s strange ability to mobilize younger voters helped to achieve Democratic electoral successes in both 2020 and 2022, which means he could be weakening himself going into 2024 should he cut the app loose. (Not to mention, as a former Trump administration official told Foreign Policy last year, that “the teenagers are going to pretty much revolt” should a widespread ban be approved.)
The knuckle for Biden here is that a TikTok crackdown would ideally engender a broader reimagining of the social media landscape. Surveillance, data collection, lack of privacy guardrails, addictive feeds, lax platform-content oversight, and misinformation campaigns are not exclusive to TikTok; arguably, many of these were American social media innovations. If Biden wanted to make a convincing example of TikTok’s worst qualities, observers could fairly argue he should do the same when it comes to Facebook or Snapchat or YouTube. A move on TikTok—whether it takes the form of a forced ByteDance sell-off, or a new business arrangement that keeps ByteDance in the picture—would inadvertently, and undoubtedly, advance calls to take firmer stances toward the cybersecurity and data policies of older social networks. But a kiss goodbye to U.S. TikTok altogether would encourage accusations of hypocrisy and stain Biden’s rep among the young voters his coalition needs. There’s no easy path here. But it’s clear that something has to be done.
The best way forward for Biden, then, may be to have a solid, detailed plan in place as his administration persists in ByteDance talks. If the sell-off threat is real, he should say much more to that effect, and outline exactly what he’ll do should ByteDance either accept or reject those terms. Should he be serious about taking ByteDance to the cleaners, he should inform the public well in advance what future business arrangements he plans for TikTok’s American ownership, and what specific measures his government will take to ensure local user data is not subject to mass thievery. And then, no matter who critiques him, Biden should convey confidence in how he plans to maintain TikTok’s domestic presence as a teenage-nonsense app while diligently monitoring for untoward Chinese-government influence or surveillance.
But if he decides to kick out the app? Well, let’s hope he still has good relationships with TikTok stars, because he might need them to keep their angry stans at bay.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.