Sunday, May 28, 2023
Tech & Science

How a little-known agency holds power over TikTok’s future

WASHINGTON — Under strain from the U.S. authorities, TikTok is now going through the music with the opportunity of a nationwide ban if it defies a authorities order to promote to an American firm — except the favored social media app can persuade a high-powered panel that its knowledge safety restructuring plan sufficiently guards in opposition to nationwide safety considerations.

At the guts of this social media enterprise and nationwide safety drama is the more and more tense relations between the U.S. and China.

The video-sharing platform with 150 million U.S. customers is finest identified for fast snippets of viral dance routines and has been beneath scrutiny for years by federal authorities who say that its Chinese mum or dad firm, ByteDance, may share delicate person knowledge with the Chinese authorities, or push propaganda and misinformation on its behalf.

Having already banned the cargo of sure applied sciences to China, and not too long ago passing new laws banning the app on authorities units, lawmakers wish to pursue a nationwide ban on the app if the tech agency can’t be offered to an American purchaser.

Enter: The Committee on Foreign Investment within the United States. The little-known however doubtlessly potent authorities company often called CFIUS is tasked with investigating company offers for nationwide safety considerations and holds energy to drive the corporate to vary.


For at the least two years, the U.S. authorities has tried to drive TikTok possession to divest from its Chinese mum or dad firm, ByteDance, although CFIUS’ evaluate of the social media app goes again at the least to 2019.

Former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin confirmed in 2020 that CFIUS was reviewing whether or not then-President Donald Trump may ban TikTok within the U.S. Its members agreed that TikTok can’t function within the U.S. in its present kind as a result of it “risks sending back information on 100 million Americans,” Mnuchin mentioned on the time.

As geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. have soared in current months, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified final week earlier than the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He was grilled about on-line security and person privateness in a hostile listening to that did little to ease lawmakers’ considerations. Chew was repeatedly questioned concerning the Chinese Communist Party’s affect on ByteDance however deflected.

“TikTok is not available in mainland China, and today we’re headquartered in Los Angeles and Singapore, but I’m not saying that the founders of ByteDance are not Chinese, nor am I saying that we don’t make use of Chinese employees, just like many other companies around the world,” he added. “We do use their expertise on some engineering projects.”


Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen oversees CFIUS, a committee made up of members from the State, Justice, Energy and Commerce Departments amongst others, which investigates nationwide safety dangers from overseas investments in American corporations.

The committee screens enterprise offers between U.S. corporations and overseas traders and may block gross sales or drive events to vary the phrases of an settlement for the aim of defending nationwide safety. The committee’s powers had been considerably expanded in 2018 by way of an act of Congress known as the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act, often called FIRRMA. In September, President Joe Biden issued an government order that expands the components that the committee ought to take into account when reviewing offers – corresponding to how the deal impacts the U.S. provide chain or dangers to Americans’ delicate private knowledge.


Defying CFIUS’ orders to promote finally may imply doing enterprise with the corporate could violate the legislation. That would suck the life out of its enterprise operations, corresponding to banking, payroll, promoting, and app retailer companies.

But the corporate mentioned it’s already mitigating nationwide safety considerations with a $1.5 billion mitigation plan known as Project Texas that might route all U.S. person knowledge to servers owned and maintained by the U.S. software program big Oracle.

“When that process is complete, all protected U.S. data will be under the protection of U.S. law and under the control of the U.S.-led security team. Under this structure, there is no way for the Chinese government to access it or compel access to it,” Chew mentioned.

While CFIUS can undertake such mitigation agreements, it’s not clear if the committee will settle for TikTok’s proposed various, mentioned Anupam Chander, a Georgetown University know-how legislation professor. If CFIUS rejects TikTok’s most well-liked resolution, Chander mentioned the federal company ought to have an obligation to clarify the way it finds that plan to be inadequate provided that it quantities to an infinite restructuring of the corporate.

“TikTok proposes lots of well-paid, third-party auditors that would be doing this kind of routine monitoring,” Chander mentioned. “This is an expensive proposition for TikTok but by no means would I treat this as window dressing.”

Though Chew final week additionally insisted that the corporate was not serious about a sale, TikTok has thought-about it earlier than. TikTok had superior negotiations with Microsoft after the corporate was put in opposition to the wall by the Trump administration in 2020, going through both an outright ban and CFIUS’ divestment order. Microsoft mentioned TikTok finally rejected their provide, and although TikTok later mentioned it might promote to Oracle and Walmart, it doesn’t seem that Project Texas quantities to a sale, Chander mentioned.

Should TikTok comply with a sale sooner or later, not solely would CFIUS need to approve that transaction, however the Chinese authorities – which has mentioned it received’t help pressured divestment – may additionally intervene.


Leaders within the U.S., European Union, Canada, New Zealand, Norway and Taiwan have additionally banned TikTok on government-issued units and at the least two international locations have banned TikTok outright.

Afghanistan’s Taliban management final yr banned it on the grounds of defending younger folks from “being misled,” whereas India imposed a nationwide ban on TikTok and dozens of different Chinese apps in 2020 over privateness and safety considerations. The ban got here shortly after a conflict between Indian and Chinese troops at a disputed Himalayan border killed 20 Indian troopers and injured dozens.

Historically, CFIUS has targeted on issues like delivery and manufacturing when reviewing transactions for nationwide safety considerations, but it surely signaled deeper curiosity in widespread social media when it ordered the courting app Grindr to divest in 2019, Chander mentioned.

The operate of CFIUS was additionally within the highlight final yr after billionaire Elon Musk purchased Twitter, plunging the microblogging platform into chaos. Yellen waffled on whether or not or not CFIUS would or may evaluate that sale, given Musk’s investments in China in addition to important Saudi curiosity.

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