Good morning my old nemesis, the ghost of the TikTok ban past.
The Wall Street Journal reported this morning that the Biden administration has “shelved” the TikTok-Oracle-Walmart partnership deal indefinitely, according to sources familiar with the matter. While any number of news cycles about TikTok’s threat to national security might be coming down the pike, the new administration seems to at least be resetting U.S. priorities after Trump’s madcap race to force a sale of the teen-focused video app.
If you’ll recall last winter, Trump accused TikTok of vacuuming up U.S. user data and sending it to the Chinese Communist Party. There’s no evidence that it has done so, and TikTok’s owner ByteDance has adamantly denied the charge and maintained that it doesn’t store any U.S. user data in China. But there is reason to believe it has posed a security risk; Human Rights Watch has reported that ByteDance has an internal committee for the CCP, and it’s headquartered in Beijing, which means that it would have to hand over data to the CCP if asked. In 2019, lawmakers called for a national security investigation. ByteDance was not immediately available for comment on the status of CCP ties.
We know for certain that TikTok has most definitely helped millions of Americans cling to sanity during the past year and shown us the interior of celebrity mansions. It also quite possibly enabled hoards of K-pop fans to book tickets for a very poorly-attended Trump rally, after which Trump fixated on banning the app, a talking point which conveniently rolled into his trade war rhetoric.
In August, Donald Trump overplayed his hand on TikTok with a sloppy executive order demanding that ByteDance divest from its U.S. assets (implicitly, to sell to a “very American” company) or else cease doing business in the U.S. Trump issued a rapid deadline (and later, more deadlines when the initial one was not met) for the sale. The “deal” eventually offered by ByteDance gave Walmart and Oracle minority stakes, and Oracle, control of its cloud services and security, but left ByteDance an 80% stake in TikTok Global — a far cry from the total divestiture Trump had been gunning for. The Justice Department battled ByteDance in court for several months, until the administration seemed to shift its legal priorities towards losing a raft of election fraud lawsuits. U.S. courts blocked the ban a few times, and, a week after the election, the Department of Commerce announced that it would not immediately enforce the ban.
In December, sources told Reuters that the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which was responsible for overseeing the deal, was still in talks with ByteDance. A few days later, a federal judge found that Trump likely overstepped his emergency powers to ban downloads in the first place.
The Biden Administration is not denying a potential threat. Moreover it seems to be starting with a clean slate, planning to conduct a more holistic review and — if it comes to it — a presumably more legally-sound plan to handle potential meddling with U.S. user data. National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne told the Journal that the administration intends to “develop a comprehensive approach to securing U.S. data” that includes Chinese apps and software. “In the coming months, we expect to review specific cases in light of a comprehensive understanding of the risks we face,” Horne said.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and White House coordinator on China policy Kurt Campbell once jointly warned that the Trump administration’s vague and aggressive approach might create a “dangerous cycle of confrontation.”
Anyway great news for all of us, who live vicariously through the teens. Children are the future.