The effort to ban TikTok is back, and it could gain more strength after the midterm elections.
Former Trump administration officials, a communications regulator, conservative commentators and several Republican lawmakers have been working in recent months to revive the Trump-era movement to ban TikTok, or at least to force a spinoff of the video app from its Chinese parent company.
The suggestion that TikTok might disappear from app stores or stop working on U.S. phones might seem absurd to the millions of people who turn to it as a source of entertainment and information. But critics have never given up the idea of banning it, and some consider it a piece of unfinished business from when then-President Donald Trump tried and failed to ban downloads of TikTok in 2020.
TikTok’s critics say they fear that Americans’ data is ending up in the hands of the Chinese government and that Chinese authorities are determining what Americans see on a major media platform — concerns that TikTok says are unfounded.
In June, BuzzFeed News reported that China-based employees of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, had accessed nonpublic data about U.S. users. TikTok denied turning over U.S. data to Chinese officials and said it never would, though it acknowledged that Chinese employees have some access to it.
Experts said there’s a steep hill to climb for those who want a total TikTok ban, but the midterms could provide a push. If Republicans are holding gavels in Congress next year, they could pressure the White House to force a sale of the company or more, said Joel Thayer, a supporter of restrictions on the company and the president of the Digital Progress Institute, an advocacy group on tech and telecommunications issues.
“The midterms will play some role,” Thayer said. “Next Congress, we’re probably going to see more China hawks, and I think TikTok is going to be part of that campaign.”
Brendan Carr, a Republican who was nominated to the Federal Communications Commission by Trump, added fuel to the TikTok criticism when he told Axios in an interview Tuesday that he wants to see the app banned, and although the FCC can’t do so on its own, his comments reflected the ongoing interest in the idea.
The renewed push for a TikTok ban or forced sale is taking place while the company is in negotiations with the Biden administration on a potential written security agreement. TikTok says it believes the agreement would address not only privacy concerns but how the app moderates content.
“We are confident that we are on a path to reaching an agreement with the U.S. Government that will satisfy all reasonable national security concerns,” TikTok said in a statement to NBC News.
Megan Stifel, a former Justice Department national security official, said she thinks the most likely outcome of the debate is a deal between TikTok and the government, not a ban.
“As believers in democracy, we want to be able to keep this medium open, but we don’t want this under-the-radar data-acquisition happening,” said Stifel, the chief strategy officer for the Institute for Security and Technology, a think tank.
Factoring into the dynamic, she said, are TikTok’s non-Chinese investors who want to avoid a major disruption in business. TikTok says more than 60% of ByteDance is owned by “Western investment firms” including Sequoia Capital, Fidelity and BlackRock. This year, the company also more than doubled its federal lobbying budget.
But the calls for a shutdown keep coming, and the future of TikTok is as cloudy as it’s been in two years.
Adding to the pressure is a bipartisan group of state attorneys general who announced an investigation in March into TikTok’s effect on the physical and mental health of children and teens. And nearly two years ago, the Federal Trade Commission ordered TikTok and eight other online services to turn over documents about data-handling.
Behind the scenes, Keith Krach is among those leading the charge against the app. Krach, a 65-year-old former tech executive, left the State Department last year and is now making a full-time job out of countering TikTok and Chinese tech threats in general.
Krach, who spent a year and a half as under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, said he fears TikTok is “spreading like wildfire” and needs to be contained, possibly along with other Chinese consumer companies such as the video game company Tencent.
“We should duplicate what we did with Huawei and ZTE and don’t let them in,” Krach said, referring to two Chinese companies that the U.S. sanctioned in recent years. Krach wants to use the same playbook.
He’s building out a civil society organization, the Global Tech Security Commission, which he says will bring together tech companies and foreign government officials in a new alliance against Chinese tech generally. Kersti Kaljulaid, a former president of Estonia, is the commission’s co-chair, and Krach said he’s spoken about it recently with NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană and the E.U.’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton. Kaljulaid did not respond to a request for comment. A NATO spokesperson said they did not comment on Geoană’s discussions. A spokesperson for Breton declined to comment on conversations with Krach but said data protection is primarily a responsibility of individual nations.
Last month, Krach interviewed Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on the subject in a live-streamed event with the Atlantic Council, and Politico has called him a “regular guest in Biden circles,” despite his work for Trump. Krach is a registered Republican.
Krach said he’s open to different strategies to pressure ByteDance, from denying the company access to U.S. capital markets to persuading businesses and government agencies to keep the app off work-issued phones. That piecemeal approach had success a few years ago, when Wells Fargo, the U.S. military and the state government of Nebraska all banned TikTok from work phones.
Some Democrats share similar concerns about TikTok, but the loudest voices have been Republicans.
“President Biden needs to reverse course immediately and demand nothing less than TikTok’s full divestment from ByteDance,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said in a statement to NBC News.
Rubio is co-sponsoring legislation to ban TikTok from all U.S. government devices. It’s an idea that his office said he’ll push next year, and it’s one that could gain traction given that the military already has such a ban.
Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state and a potential 2024 presidential candidate, last month called TikTok a “Trojan horse for the Chinese Communist Party.”
Despite the growing movement against the app, some experts have suggested separate ideas that would protect privacy without a ban.
Vilas Dhar, the president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, a grant-making organization that focuses on the social impact of technology, said Congress should focus on passing a new federal law to protect personal data on all apps rather than on a narrow ban on TikTok.
“If we don’t have a holistic approach that considers free speech rights and the rights of consumers to choose platforms, then we go down a whole different rabbit hole,” he said.
Geoffrey Cain, a senior fellow at the Lincoln Network, a conservative tech advocacy group, noted that fear of a consumer backlash gives TikTok plenty of leverage.
“It’s a massive social media force,” he said. Compared with 2020, he added, “it’s now much, much harder for the federal government to do much around TikTok at all.”