The Biden administration has reportedly threatened to ban the use of TikTok in the US unless the popular video sharing app’s China-based owners sell their stakes.
Officials from the Committee on Foreign Investment — an interagency task force that assesses potential national security risks in business deals — recently made the demand to executives at TikTok owner ByteDance, the Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday.
The ultimatum marks a major escalation in ongoing scrutiny of TikTok on Capitol Hill, where the app has faced bipartisan criticism over concerns that the Chinese government could improperly access the data of American users.
The maneuver also brings the Biden administration closer in line with the stance of former President Donald Trump, who pursued a TikTok ban in 2020. The ban was eventually blocked in federal court.
TikTok — one of the most popular social media apps, with more than 100 million users in the US alone — fired back at the report of a potential ban, arguing a sale would not address Congress’ concerns about national security risks.
“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access,” TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan said.
“The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, U.S.-based protection of U.S. user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing.”
The Treasury Department, which oversees the Committee on Foreign Investment, declined the Journal’s request for comment on the situation.
Global investors own about 60% of ByteDance shares, according to the company, while 20% are controlled by employees and 20% by the company’s founders.
The report surfaced as TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify on Capitol Hill for the first time on March 23. He is expected to be grilled by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The committee said its hearing would focus on “consumer privacy and data security practices, the platforms’ impact on kids, and their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.”
“ByteDance-owned TikTok has knowingly allowed the ability for the Chinese Communist Party to access American user data,” committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said in a statement last January.
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, recently said the Chinese Communist Party uses the app to “manipulate and monitor its users while it gobbles up Americans’ data to be used for their malign activities.”
“Anyone with TikTok downloaded on their device has given the CCP a backdoor to all their personal information. It’s a spy balloon into your phone,” he added.
Lawmakers from both parties have called for a nationwide ban on TikTok. Earlier this year, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), an outspoken critic of Big Tech, introduced a bill that would install a ban.
In February, the Biden administration ordered federal agencies to remove TikTok from all government devices.