The Biden administration demands that TikTok be sold, or risk a nationwide ban
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
The Biden administration is demanding that TikTok be sold or banned nationwide.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Yeah, that's correct. It's the latest U.S. move against a social media platform which is owned by a China-based company, ByteDance. President Biden is the second-straight president to try this. The Trump administration also attempted to force a sale, although federal courts stopped that move.
PFEIFFER: NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn joins us to explain why this time might be different. Hi, Bobby.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.
PFEIFFER: So this is the second administration to try to challenge TikTok over these national security concerns - essentially put it out of business. How serious is the threat this time?
ALLYN: Yeah, it's quite serious. Now, beginning in the Trump administration, as you mentioned, a national security committee led by the Treasury Department has been examining whether Americans' data is safe with TikTok. Since laws in China require businesses to give government officials unfettered access, White House officials have been worried that Beijing could use TikTok to spy on Americans or analyze what is popular in the U.S. and then launch disinformation campaigns. While we haven't seen evidence of that happening, the fear is just as present in the Biden White House as it was during the Trump administration and TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, has resisted calls to sell TikTok. But now the Biden administration is telling TikTok, look, you have to sell to an American company or be put out of business in the U.S.
PFEIFFER: And what is TikTok saying to that?
ALLYN: Yeah, TikTok officials say they are disappointed with this outcome, and they say they're going to stay focused on a major restructuring now underway to enact a firewall between TikTok and its Chinese parent company. They're calling it Project Texas because it involves an Austin-based software company, Oracle, which, under this plan, would host all of Americans' TikTok data. The plan also creates a new entity focused on data security, and it would be subject - all of Americans' data would be subject to regular independent audits. But the plan did not go as far as having ByteDance sell off TikTok completely. And Biden officials are saying, look, if there's no divestiture, the plan is not going to be approved.
PFEIFFER: And, Bobby, if there is no plan approved and if TikTok says, no, you can't sell us, then what happens to it?
ALLYN: There certainly is going to be some legal fights if that's the case. When President Trump tried to ban TikTok, federal courts halted it, in part because it was a free speech violation. Remember, a hundred million Americans use this platform to express themselves, to connect with other people and sometimes to get informed about the news. So besides a legal battle, China could step in and try to prevent TikTok from being sold. It's unclear how the White House would respond to this. But federal officials could start taking steps to place TikTok on a blacklist that would make it illegal to do business with TikTok, which could be a big problem for the company.
PFEIFFER: And then what does that mean for, as you said, the almost third of the country that uses TikTok?
ALLYN: Right. In the very short term, not much, Sacha. I mean, TikTok is not going to go away overnight. But TikTok faces the real possibility now of being banned in the U.S. And if they are, who benefits most? Well, look, major social media platforms - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube. TikTok's disappearance would create a huge void, and all of the established social media companies would then try to attract the displaced TikTokers over to their own platforms.
PFEIFFER: NPR's Bobby Allyn, thank you.
ALLYN: Thank you.
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