WASHINGTON - Early last year, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden's national security adviser, met to discuss China and industrial policy. During their conversation, Rubio raised his worries about Beijing's influence over TikTok, the Chinese-owned viral video app.
Under former President Donald Trump, TikTok had been embroiled in questions over whether it could compromise U.S. national security by sharing information about Americans with China. The issue, which was never resolved, was inherited by the Biden administration. Sullivan "shared our concerns," Rubio said in an interview.
Their discussion was one of many that lawmakers have quietly had with government officials about TikTok since Biden took office. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said he had also been in "active conversations" with the administration about the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. And regulators and other government officials have been weighing what to do about it after scrutinizing other Chinese firms.
These behind-the-scenes conversations signal how tensions over TikTok have simmered in Washington. While the app appeared to fade as a political flashpoint after Trump left office last year, lawmakers and government officials have privately grown frustrated over the Biden administration's lack of progress in policing TikTok and other Chinese apps that could leak data to Beijing.
That dissatisfaction has boiled over into public view in recent months, after new revelations from BuzzFeed and other news outlets about TikTok's data practices and ties to its Chinese parent. Rubio and Warner have recently called for a Federal Trade Commission investigation into the app, while a regulator at the Federal Communications Commission publicly said that TikTok should be booted from American app stores.
A group of Republican senators has also demanded answers from TikTok about who could access the app's data. On Tuesday, officials in the House of Representatives told staff members that they did not recommend using or downloading the service, citing security concerns, according to an email obtained by The New York Times.
"It's just not been a priority over there, unfortunately, and I hope it will become one with the new revelations," Rubio said of the Biden administration's progress on TikTok.
The bipartisan scrutiny of TikTok, effectively at its most intense since Trump tried to force the app's sale to an American buyer in 2020, is mounting as the platform grows ever more popular. With more than 1 billion users, TikTok has become a prime engine for cultural phenomena, like the scores of young people who posted last month about dressing in suits to see the latest "Minions" movie. Today, 67% of 13- to 17-year-olds in the United States use the app, according to a report last week from the Pew Research Center.
TikTok has fought back against the new scrutiny. Shou Zi Chew, its CEO, wrote directly to senators in July to "set the record straight" about the app's data practices. Michael Beckerman, a TikTok executive who runs its multimillion-dollar lobbying apparatus, also went on CNN last month to defend the company.
In an interview, Beckerman called TikTok's data collection "all very minor" compared with other social apps. To reduce security concerns, the app has said that it plans to store all its U.S. data solely on Oracle servers in the United States, deleting its backups in Singapore and Virginia, and managing access from the United States. The process, Beckerman said, would probably be finished this year. He did not offer a specific date.
The White House may be preparing to act soon on broader policy around apps that could expose data to foreign adversaries. Earlier this year, it circulated a draft of an executive order that would give the government more power to intercede in cases in which data is at risk of being exposed to an adversary. The Biden administration is also expected to issue guidance soon for a committee that vets transactions involving foreign companies, telling it to be especially sensitive to cases that could expose Americans' data to other governments. It is also considering ways to review whole classes of potentially risky deals, rather than approaching them on an individual basis.
"The Biden administration is focused on the challenge of certain countries, including China, seeking to leverage digital technologies and Americans' data in ways that present unacceptable national security risks while advancing authoritarian control and interests," said Saloni Sharma, a spokesperson for the National Security Council. "The administration is also reviewing additional potential actions to address this challenge."
TikTok has faced security questions for years, especially in 2020 when Trump issued an executive order to block it from the Apple and Google app stores unless ByteDance sold the app to an American firm. He later announced a deal to sell part of the app to Oracle, the American cloud computing giant, but it never came to pass. Federal courts eventually ruled that Trump's order blocking TikTok was illegal, along with another blocking the Chinese-owned app WeChat, and last summer, Biden rolled both back.
But the government has continued trying to reduce risks associated with TikTok. The app and the committee on foreign investment in the United States, which vets international involvement in deals, have been quietly negotiating a resolution to the government's concerns, according to people tracking the discussions.
While a larger team is working on how to cordon off U.S. user data, only around 10 TikTok employees have seen the draft agreement between the company and the government, TikTok said, reflecting the closely held nature of the negotiations.
A spokesperson for the Treasury Department, which oversees the committee on foreign investment, declined to comment on TikTok and said the group is committed to safeguarding national security.
The Commerce Department has the power to review risks from other foreign-owned apps and services. But those reviews have since moved slowly as the agency staffed up for the Biden administration.
"There's a lot of frustration within certain parts of the administration with the lack of progress," said Paul Triolo, a senior vice president for China at Albright Stonebridge Group, a consulting firm.
Sharma noted that Biden's 2021 executive order rolling back Trump's TikTok ban had measures to "protect Americans' sensitive data from collection and utilization by foreign adversaries."
Conversations have also continued behind the scenes between lawmakers and the administration about its plans for TikTok. Warner said he had experienced "some outreach" from TikTok leadership about their plans for handling data security.
Lawmakers said they remained concerned. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., said in an interview that she believed TikTok's Beckerman "danced around the relationship with ByteDance" when he testified at a 2021 congressional hearing about children's online safety. Beckerman denied misleading anyone.
The worries exploded into public view again in June when BuzzFeed reported that the app's employees in China had recently been able to access Americans' data. Gizmodo later reported that the company had tried downplaying its Chinese ownership.
Brendan Carr, a Republican member of the FCC, said he saw the BuzzFeed story and publicly asked Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores in June. In October, he had also called for the FCC to review the risks associated with drones made by DJI, a Chinese company.
"I thought it was totally appropriate to speak up," Carr said. The FCC does not regulate mobile apps.
Google declined to comment on the letter. Apple did not respond to a request for comment about the message. A Google executive wrote back to Carr that the company was monitoring the situation "pending congressional and potentially Federal Trade Commission reviews regarding" TikTok.
The unease over TikTok appears unlikely to dissipate in Washington. The memo Tuesday to House staff members advising against using the app read: "TikTok is a Chinese-owned company, and any use of this platform should be done with that in mind."
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