The Biden administration is developing new regulations that could lay the groundwork to bar TikTok and other Chinese-owned apps that present national security concerns, after revoking Trump administration orders that sought to ban the apps.
The Commerce Department is reviewing comments on proposed rules that would expand government oversight of apps that could be exploited “by foreign adversaries to steal or otherwise obtain data,” according to a federal filing. The rules could allow the Commerce Department to require apps to submit to audits, allowing independent scrutiny of their source code and other data they collect.
The Commerce Department does not yet have a timeline for when the rules will be finalized. In the interim, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which weighs the security risks of business deals, has an “ongoing” review of TikTok, Saloni Sharma, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, told The Washington Post. ByteDance, TikTok’s Beijing-based owner, had discussions with CFIUS as recently as December, according to one person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.
TikTok has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, despite ongoing warnings from U.S. policymakers that it could be a powerful weapon for China in the global information wars. That’s posed a quandary for the Biden administration, which shares concerns about these apps but has sought to find a path forward that could withstand legal challenges.
“The Biden administration believes certain countries, including the People’s Republic of China (PRC), seek to leverage digital technologies and Americans’ data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks while advancing authoritarian controls and interests,” Sharma said in a statement.
Biden revokes Trump’s TikTok and WeChat bans, but sets up a security review of foreign-owned apps
The Commerce Department rulemaking follows a June executive order, which launched a security review that could prompt restrictions of the apps. Senior administration officials told The Post at the time that they wanted to establish a more “robust” process for reviewing the apps, after the Trump administration’s attempts to block TikTok and other services faced court challenges. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the Commerce Department’s moves.
Under that order, the Commerce Department, as well as the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, have submitted recommendations to address the risks posed by foreign apps to the White House.
A representative for TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment. TikTok executives have said U.S. user data is not shared with the Chinese authorities and is stored on servers in Virginia, with backups in Singapore. But critics have argued that the servers’ location is irrelevant because of China’s potential influence over a company headquartered in Beijing.
Trump says he plans to bar TikTok from operating in the U.S.
Since launching in the United States in 2017, TikTok has become one of the Internet’s most popular social networks. The company said in September that more than 1 billion people use it every month. Donald Trump’s criticism of the service did nothing to slow enthusiasm for the platform, which has consistently remained one of the most-downloaded apps in the Apple and Google app stores. TikTok leaped past Google last year to become the world’s most popular website, according to the Internet infrastructure company Cloudflare.
The Trump administration in 2020 issued an executive order threatening to ban the app if it was not owned by an American parent company, citing concerns that Americans’ data could be accessed by the Chinese government. TikTok’s owner challenged that sell-off order in court, and an earlier proposal from a group including Walmart and Oracle remains on hold pending legal and federal reviews.
Former employees in the company’s U.S. offices told The Post in 2019 that Beijing-based officials decided policies that would govern how the app is used in the United States, including rules over what topics are to be demoted or removed. Vanessa Pappas, the company’s chief, told The Post in a statement then that her California-based team assumed more control of the U.S. market after realizing the company’s global “’one-size-fits-all’ approach … wouldn’t work.”
Jeanne Whalen contributed to this report.