The Trump administration’s calls to ban the video-streaming app TikTok are intensifying.
There’s little precedent for the U.S. government to ban a popular consumer app, and it’s unclear how President Donald Trump plans to move forward. The most stringent Internet bans, like those imposed by China’s Great Firewall or India’s recent actions against Chinese apps, block all communications between a targeted company’s servers and users in a given country. But it’s unclear how such a blunt method would be implemented under U.S. law, and such a move probably would raise censorship concerns and First Amendment challenges.
Yet the administration has a variety of tools at its disposal that could spell trouble for Generation Z’s favorite social network, which is owned by China’s ByteDance. And the White House has shown its willing to impose tough measures to limit other Chinese companies it views as a security threat, including Huawei. Trump’s options range from leveraging a recent executive order expanding government’s powers to protect communications networks to exerting pressure through a powerful national security review agency.
TikTok is now solidly at the center of the Trump administration’s anti-China push.
The app known for viral videos has become a flash point as Trump ramps up his criticism of Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as the number of U.S. infections climbs. The attacks on TikTok could escalate as Election Day approaches and the president makes that criticism central to his reelection pitch.
“Jobs and China, that’s what this campaign is about,” White House trade adviser Peter Navarro said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Navarro said to expect “strong action” against TikTok, and he called the company’s new American chief executive Kevin Mayer a “puppet.” He accused TikTok, without providing evidence, of sharing Americans’ data with the Chinese Communist Party.
“What the American people have to understand is all of the data that goes into those mobile apps that kids have so much fun with and seem so convenient, it goes right to servers in China, right to the Chinese military, the Chinese Communist Party, and the agencies which want to steal our intellectual property,” Navarro said.
Trump suggested in an interview last week that a TikTok ban is one of many options he’s considering to punish China for its handling of the coronavirus. A senior administration official said the administration’s concerns also include “well-documented censorship within Chinese-owned apps.”
Yet TikTok insists that it has never shared user data with the Chinese government and wouldn’t do so if asked.
“Protecting the privacy of our users’ data is a critical priority for TikTok,” company spokeswoman Ashley Nash-Hahn said in a statement. “User data is stored in the U.S. and Singapore, with minimal access across regions, and our American Chief Information Security Officer has decades of U.S. law enforcement and security experience.
The Trump administration could target TikTok through a 2019 executive order aimed at Chinese companies. The order empowers the Commerce secretary to effectively ban any communications tool that is a national security threat to the United States by strictly applying the International Economic Emergency Powers Act. If the government said TikTok posed a national security threat under that law, Stewart Baker, who was general counsel of the National Security Agency, said Americans would effectively be barred from doing business with the company.
“Americans can’t work for it, Americans can’t advertise on it, Americans can’t put it in their app store,” Baker said. “You can’t give them a nickel or take a nickel.”
Baker said teenagers who already downloaded the app could continue using it. “But it wouldn’t be maintained, there wouldn’t be ads, there would be no American staff working for the company,” he said. Baker currently works for law firm Steptoe & Johnson, which counts TikTok rival Facebook as a client.
Baker added he was unaware of a time where this executive order has previously been used.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States could force changes at the company.
The cross-government group that reviews foreign transactions involving American firms last year opened an investigation into the 2017 deal in which the Beijing-based ByteDance bought a popular karaoke app, Musical.ly, for up to $1 billion, The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell and Tony Romm reported. Such a review can result in retroactively terminating deals, fines or corporate changes.
There is precedent for the U.S. government quashing deals involving social apps they say pose national security threats. Last year the U.S. government demanded that the Chinese owners of Grindr, the gay dating app, give up their control of the company. They could push for a similar outcome with TikTok, said James Andrew Lewis, the senior vice president and director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Lewis said there may be a way to structure an agreement so owner Bytedance maintains a stake as an investor but no operational control. “And so that way they get the money and none of the headache,” Lewis explained.
TikTok has been considering changes to its corporate structure as national security concerns mount.
“As we consider the best path forward, ByteDance is evaluating changes to the corporate structure of its TikTok business,” Nash-Hahn said.
Digital rights advocates are criticizing the administration for not spelling out its plans.
The uncertainty about what the administration means when it says it would ban TikTok and how it would carry out such an order is vexing advocates for a free and open Internet.
“There is a point where it is just it ultimately is the responsibility of the government who is saying they’re going to do a ban to explain what that ban is, what are the authorities that support that ban, how is it lawful and constitutional,” said Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I think that would be something they really should do when they first mentioned a ban to avoid a little bit of this time period where they talk about something and then it’s unclear what they mean by it. “
The Washington Post