The Biden administration has spent two years negotiating with TikTok to address government concerns that the popular Chinese video app poses a national security risk. But as the talks drag on, lawmakers at the federal and state levels have grown impatient and taken matters into their own hands.
In the past few weeks, at least 14 states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices. Legislators in Congress are expected to vote this week on a sweeping spending bill that will include a ban on TikTok on all federal government devices. A separate bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last week would ban the app for everyone in the United States. Additionally, the Indiana Attorney General has sued TikTok, accusing the company of deceiving regarding the security and privacy risks the app poses.
What began as an attempt by the Trump administration a few years ago has evolved into an increasingly bipartisan issue. Politicians from both parties share concerns that the app could monitor users in the United States and put sensitive data, including location information, in the hands of the Chinese government.
Federal officials have also raised concerns about how China could use the app to influence Americans through videos made available through TikTok’s algorithm, which routes highly customized videos to users based on their profiles and interests. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, warned last month that the Chinese government could use TikTok for “influence operations” or attempt to use the app to infiltrate and compromise devices.
“This is a common concern at this point — it’s not just Republicans, it’s not just Democrats,” said Illinois Democrat Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, who joined Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher, a Republican, and others last week Lawmakers joined in announcing legislation TikTok banned in US.
“It’s going to get even louder over the next year,” he added, “unless there are significant changes in the way TikTok operates in the United States and its ownership structure adjusts.”
The bans are part of escalating tensions between the United States and China over global technological and economic leadership. The Biden administration and Beijing have instituted huge government spending programs to build technology supply chains within their own borders, effectively ending decades of global trade politics in an arms race over chipmaking, electric vehicle and battery production.
In Washington and state capitals, criticism of TikTok and other Chinese companies has become a common topic of conversation.
US officials have argued that TikTok, which is owned by China-based company ByteDance and has an estimated 100 million users in the United States, may share sensitive data about Americans’ location, personal habits and interests with the Chinese government. The app is particularly popular with young people. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of US teens use TikTok, second only to YouTube.
TikTok has long denied sharing data with Chinese government officials and has sought to distance itself from its parent company. The company cites its founding in the Cayman Islands and its offices in New York, Los Angeles, Singapore and Washington, DC as evidence that the service’s operations are anchored outside of China.
But Washington has maintained a skeptical stance. The investigation into the app — led by an interagency group called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — began under the Trump administration. In 2020, President Donald J. Trump tried to ban the service from Apple and Google’s app stores unless the business was sold to an American company. But federal courts overturned the ban, and Mr. Trump left office without resolving the issue.
Since then, the company has been in negotiations with the Biden administration over changes to how the company stores and maintains access to US user data.
In a presentation to the Biden administration and intelligence officials, TikTok outlined an elaborate plan to store US user data on Oracle servers and erect walls that would block access to that data by ByteDance employees or Chinese government officials.
Brooke Oberwetter, a spokeswoman for TikTok, said in an email Monday that the plan “would meaningfully address any security concerns that have been raised at both the federal and state levels” and that the company would offer government and independent oversight to address concerns about its content recommendations and access to US user data.
“Politicians with national security concerns should encourage the administration to complete its national security review of TikTok,” Ms. said. Oberwetter wrote. “Further action is unnecessary and punitive; They send a chilling message to foreign tech companies looking to do business in the US and offer globally interoperable experiences to compete alongside other global platforms.”
A spokesman for the Treasury Department, which oversees the app’s national security review, declined to comment. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre declined to comment on the legislation banning TikTok on federal government devices when asked about it last week.
“I know this just happened, so let’s let Congress move forward with its processes on this,” she said. She added that TikTok is one of a number of applications already banned “for security reasons on the White House and other federal government work devices.”
In September, President Biden directed the United States Committee on Foreign Investments to examine whether deals it audits have the potential for a foreign company to exploit Americans’ data. The government has also been working on another executive order that would look more closely at how foreign actors could get hold of Americans’ data. It’s not clear if – and if – it will be released.
Lawmakers are tired of waiting to see how it pans out.
“My patience is failing,” Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in an email. He has not signed into law banning TikTok, but has been a vocal critic of the company and expressed support for states that have banned TikTok on government devices.
A bill introduced by a Republican senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, that would ban the app on federal government devices has been included in the omnibus spending bill scheduled for a vote in the coming days. The bill passed by the Senate would be the app’s most sweeping restriction yet.
“I hope this serves as a wake-up call for the administration to move,” Mr. Hawley said in an interview. “This law is an important and important step against TikTok and sends a signal to all Americans that if it’s not safe for someone who has a federal device to have, my child should have it on their phone?” Maybe not.”
Republican governors have been particularly active on the issue, announcing bans on 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 telecom providers like WeChat and Huawei. Maryland’s action extended to certain Russian-influenced products such as Kaspersky, an antivirus software.
The Pentagon warned military departments in December 2019 of the “potential risk associated with using the TikTok app,” leading to later bans of the app on government devices used by the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard.
Restrictions on government-issued devices can be enforced by software that blocks or limits certain apps from downloading on official devices. The rules do not prevent a government employee from downloading the app onto a personal device.
Banning TikTok for all US users would face further challenges. Consumers continue to demand the app despite warnings from officials and may push back. Additionally, the bipartisan bill in Congress restricting consumers’ use of the app raises First Amendment concerns, said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates for free speech.
“It takes away a means of communication from people using the app to present themselves to the world, and in some cases for political speeches and commentary,” Mr. Opsahl said. “A total ban is not the right solution to the problem.”