The Biden administration is shifting its approach to TikTok

Mar 8, 2023, 11:30 AM | Updated: Feb 21, 2024, 9:47 am

Kaleigh Rogers, FiveThirtyEight's technology and politics reporter,  joined a recent episode of In...

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28: In this photo illustration, the TikTok app logo is displayed on an iPhone on February 28, 2023 in London, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

(Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Originally Published: 08 MAR 23 07:32 ET
Updated: 08 MAR 23 12:06 ET

(CNN) — The White House’s endorsement of a bill that would give the Biden administration new powers to restrict or ban TikTok in the United States marks a significant shift in the White House’s approach to the Chinese-owned social media app.

It’s also a move that the White House has been actively mulling for several weeks while working with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to draft the legislation, Democratic and Republican aides said.

A dozen US senators unveiled legislation on Tuesday called the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act. The bill does not target TikTok specifically for a ban. But it aims to give the US government new powers, up to and including a ban, against foreign-linked producers of electronics or software that the Commerce Department deems to be a national security risk.

The bill was drafted in close consultation with the White House’s National Security Council as well as the Commerce, Treasury and Justice Departments, according to aides familiar with the process.

The National Security Council and Department of Justice proposed specific changes to the text of the legislation, some of which were adopted, according to a Democratic and a Republican aide.

The White House’s involvement in the drafting of the bill marked a shift, following more than two years during which the administration’s Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States, or CFIUS, has sought to negotiate a deal with TikTok to address US national security concerns about Chinese ownership of the popular social media app.

Those talks have yet to yield a deal. And the new legislation could give the White House significant new leverage in those talks or simply empower the administration to resolve the situation unilaterally.

The White House’s rapid-fire endorsement of the bill came in the form of a statement from National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who said it will empower the administration “to prevent certain foreign governments from exploiting technology services operating in the United States in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our national security.”

The White House’s involvement in drafting the legislation and its endorsement of the bill comes amid mounting pressure on Capitol Hill to take a more aggressive stance, including a bill by Sen. Marco Rubio that would outright ban TikTok.

A Democratic aide said the White House recognized the need for congressional action and decided to throw their support behind Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Republican Sen. John Thune’s approach, which would empower the administration without requiring it to ban the app.

“We appreciate that some members of Congress remain willing to explore options for addressing national security concerns that don’t have the effect of censoring millions of Americans,” Brooke Oberwetter, a spokesperson for TikTok, said in a statement about the legislation. “A U.S. ban on TikTok is a ban on the export of American culture and values to the billion-plus people who use our service worldwide.”

As TikTok faces mounting scrutiny in the United States, it’s also dealing with scrutiny overseas.

TikTok sought to reassure European users on Wednesday that their personal information will be protected from prying eyes with a series of steps the company is taking to keep that data within the European Union.

TikTok will begin moving EU user data onto servers this year located in Ireland and Norway, the company said in a blog post, with the aim to complete that migration in 2024. The local data storage is expected to cost the company 1.2 billion euros a year, the company said.

In addition, TikTok said it plans to require employees seeking access to EU user data to go through “security gateways” and “additional checks” intended to prevent misuse of the information.

The company’s changes in Europe are part of an initiative it is calling “Project Clover,” an analogue to the US-focused “Project Texas” the company has unveiled to erect safeguards for American TikTok users and persuade US policymakers the company does not pose a national security risk.

“Project Clover is a program focused on creating a secure enclave for European TikTok user data,” TikTok said in the blog post. “This initiative will introduce a number of new measures to strengthen existing protections and further align our overall approach to data governance with the principle of European data sovereignty.”

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The Biden administration is shifting its approach to TikTok