Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s visit to China is putting a spotlight on the future of TikTok in the United States, where criticism of the app and its ties to Beijing reached a fever pitch this year.
Despite the intense pressure on the popular short-form video app, which is owned by the Chinese technology company ByteDance, efforts to ban or regulate it in Washington have not yet borne fruit. And even with all that scrutiny, Ms. Raimondo is not planning to discuss TikTok while in China, a glaring omission that reflects the impasse at which it has left the Biden administration.
The administration has been stymied by how to deal with TikTok even as intelligence officials have warned that it poses a national security threat. The app has been barred on government devices federally and in more than two dozen states, its chief executive was grilled before Congress in March and lawmakers have proposed legislation that would make it easier for the White House to ban tech companies owned by “foreign adversaries” like China.
But the White House’s options are limited. Ms. Raimondo memorably told Bloomberg News this year that if the administration banned TikTok, “the politician in me thinks you’re going to literally lose every voter under 35, forever.” (TikTok claims 150 million users in the United States.)
It’s also not clear if a ban would hold up in court. In March, when the Biden administration reportedly considered forcing a sale of TikTok by its Chinese owners, China’s Commerce Ministry quickly said that it opposed a divestment and that the move would undercut foreign investment in the United States.
That has left the United States and TikTok to work out a plan for operating in America that addresses the national security concerns, but those talks have stalled amid growing tensions between the two superpowers.
What kind of approval is TikTok waiting on?
TikTok has been in yearslong confidential talks with the administration’s review panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, to address questions about TikTok and ByteDance’s relationship with the Chinese government and their handling of user data. Ms. Raimondo’s visit marks a year since TikTok submitted a 90-page proposal detailing how it will offer independent oversight of its platform, but the plan has not yet been approved.
TikTok, which says it has never shared U.S. user data with the Chinese government, has disclosed some details of its plan, known as Project Texas. It would put U.S. user data into domestic servers owned and operated by Oracle, the software giant, and give the American government and Oracle unique oversight of the app. Forbes recently reviewed the confidential proposal and reported that TikTok U.S. planned to exclude ByteDance leaders from some “security-related decision making” and instead rely on a committee “that would operate in secrecy from ByteDance.”
Jodi Seth, a spokeswoman for TikTok, said the conversations with CFIUS were “ongoing.” A spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, which oversees CFIUS, declined to comment.
What’s the United States worried about?
Intelligence officials have said Beijing could use TikTok to gain access to Americans’ sensitive data or manipulate its powerful algorithm to influence the content they see. They have pointed to laws that allow the Chinese government to secretly demand data from Chinese companies and citizens for intelligence-gathering operations. TikTok has set up headquarters in Singapore and Los Angeles, though that has not stemmed the concerns.
The White House has to tread carefully. Anupam Chander, a fellow at the Institute for Rebooting Social Media at Harvard University, said targeting TikTok ran the risk of prompting blowback against American companies operating in China, such as Apple.
“The TikTok ban will beget other bans and start a digital trade war that is going to harm companies and users on both sides,” he said.
Mr. Chander also said that while TikTok attracted critics from both sides of the aisle, Democrats were more likely to benefit from the platform than Republicans ahead of the next election. He noted that the current administration had worked with TikTok stars to promote vaccines and said Republicans “are not using it as eagerly as the Democrats are.”
What’s the holdup?
Federal judges ruled against President Donald J. Trump’s attempt to ban TikTok in 2020. The Biden administration has tried to navigate the issue in a way that could avoid a similar fate.
In March, the White House endorsed legislation written by Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, that would give the administration more power to regulate foreign services that collect Americans’ information.
But that bill, the RESTRICT Act, hasn’t moved in Congress. Neither have several other laws that would empower the administration to ban TikTok, potentially giving it more leverage in the negotiations with the app. In a statement last week, Mr. Warner said the nation needed “a real strategy” to address apps that posed national security concerns.
“Today, we’re talking about TikTok,” he said. “But new apps and tools are popping up constantly.”