TikTok confirmed Wednesday (March 15th) to AFP that the US government had recommended the sale of the application by its owner, the Chinese group ByteDance, as pressure mounts in the United States against the popular platform.
According to the Wall Street Journal and other American newspapers, the White House has issued an ultimatum: if TikTok remains in the fold of ByteDance, it will be banned in the United States. The app is perceived as a threat to national security by many Western elected officials because of its membership in a Chinese company.
In the United States, the downing in February of a Chinese balloon alleged spy sparked renewed efforts in Congress to ban the service from entertaining short videos, accused of giving Beijing access to user data from around the world, which it has always denied.
The White House's request comes from CFIUS, a government agency responsible for assessing the risks of any foreign investment to U.S. national security. The government and Treasury declined to comment.
"If the objective is to protect national security, a transfer does not solve the problem: (the fact that the application) changes ownership will not mean the imposition of new restrictions on the flow of data or access to it," responded a spokeswoman for TikTok, contacted by AFP. "The best way to address national security concerns is to use the country's U.S. user data protection systems, with strong oversight and third-party verification, which we are already putting in place," she added.
TikTok, which goes to great lengths to reassure politicians and the public about its integrity, relied on CFIUS to find a compromise. "The quickest and most effective way to address these concerns ... is that CFIUS adopts the proposed agreement that we have been working on with them for more than two years," a TikTok spokesperson said in late February. He was reacting to consideration of a Republican-led bill that would give President Joe Biden the authority to ban TikTok altogether.
The White House has already banned officials of federal institutions from having the app on their smartphones, pursuant to a law ratified in early January. The European Commission and the Canadian government recently took similar decisions for their officials' mobile phones.
The company stores U.S. user data on servers located in the country. She admitted that China-based employees had access to it, but within a strict and limited framework, and not the Chinese government.
"In the middle of the ring"
In the summer of 2020, former President Donald Trump signed several executive orders to try to ban the platform or have it bought by an American company. "TikTok is reliving the saga of 2019/2020," Wedbush's Dan Ives said. "With tensions escalating between the U.S. and China, the app finds itself trapped, in the middle of the ring," the analyst added in a note.
The platform's already considerable popularity has exploded in favor of the pandemic, beyond its original audience, teenagers. The app has more than 100 million users in the United States. It has surpassed YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook in recent years in "time spent" by American adults on each platform, and is now hot on the heels of Netflix, according to Insider Intelligence.
The powerful American civil rights group ACLU has opposed anti-TikTok bills in the name of free speech.
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