In a strategy shift, the Biden administration is increasingly pointing to Congress to give it more legal power to deal with TikTok and other technology that could expose Americans’ sensitive data to China.
By David McCabe
David McCabe, based in Washington, has reported on TikTok since former President Donald J. Trump tried to force the sale of the app to American companies in 2020.
The Biden administration is considering pushing Congress to give it more legal power to deal with TikTok and other technology that could expose sensitive data to China, five people with knowledge of the matter said, as it comes under growing pressure to resolve security concerns about the Chinese-owned video app.
White House officials are weighing whether to support legislation being developed by Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, that would give the government more authority to police apps and services that could pose a risk to Americans’ data security or be used in foreign influence campaigns, two of the people said. That could be used to target TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance.
The administration has provided feedback on the draft bill, which would offer an alternative to legislation that outright bans the app, the two people said. Mr. Warner is expected to introduce the legislation on Tuesday alongside Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota. It’s unclear exactly how the administration would back Mr. Warner’s bill or other legislation should it choose to do so.
The growing focus on Congress is a significant shift in the White House’s strategy to respond to concerns about TikTok. Since President Biden took office, his administration has privately negotiated a deal that would allow TikTok to operate in the United States while mitigating national security concerns about it. Under Chinese law, critics have said, the app could be compelled to turn over personal data it has collected about millions of Americans to Chinese authorities. And they fear Beijing could use TikTok to deliver political messages to people’s smartphone screens.
But the talks — between TikTok and a group of federal agencies, known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — have not resulted in an agreement. TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, is scheduled to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23.
By calling more aggressively on Congress to act, the White House could shift the focus from the negotiations between TikTok and the committee, known as CFIUS. If the legislation passed, the new legal powers would give the administration a stronger hand in those talks.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment.
“The Biden administration does not need additional authority from Congress to address national security concerns about TikTok: It can approve the deal negotiated with CFIUS,” said Brooke Oberwetter, a spokeswoman for TikTok.
In August, the company considered a draft agreement it had sent the government to be “final, save for some legal terms that are not material to national security,” Ms. Oberwetter said. But the company has heard little from the government since then, TikTok has said. Some people in the administration were worried then that the deal was not strict enough.
TikTok has become a battleground in a technological cold war between Washington and Beijing. U.S. officials have taken steps in recent years to block Chinese technology and telecommunications companies from access to American suppliers and customers. They have also authorized $52 billion for domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research to reduce America’s reliance on computer chips made in Asia. China has long blocked many American online services.
Top administration officials have ramped up their discussions of what to do about TikTok in recent months, two people familiar with the matter said. At least some of the entities involved in vetting the deal with CFIUS, including the Department of Justice and officials at the White House, want to take a hard line against the app, one of the people said. They spoke anonymously because the conversations are private.
“Consistent with law and practice, CFIUS does not publicly comment on transactions that it may or may not be reviewing,” said a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department, which runs the committee. A Justice Department spokeswoman also declined to comment.
But the administration’s options may be limited without changes to the law. In 2020, President Donald J. Trump threatened to ban TikTok from Apple’s and Google’s app stores unless ByteDance sold the app to an American buyer. Courts later said the government didn’t have the legal right to threaten a ban, effectively neutering its leverage to force a sale.
TikTok’s influence has only grown since then, and it surpassed more than one billion users worldwide in 2021.
Last year, Congress prohibited the app on devices used by the federal government. States such as Virginia and South Carolina have announced similar bans. A group of lawmakers, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, both Republicans, have also proposed legislation that would ban TikTok in the United States. And the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a bill last week giving the president more power over the app.
Mr. Warner has said legislation is needed to police all apps and services that threaten America’s national security, not just TikTok. His bill will most likely give the Commerce Department the ability to vet those services, including for security risks for data belonging to Americans, as Mr. Biden instructed the agency to do in a 2021 executive order, according to a person with knowledge of the draft. The bill would also enable the agency to look at how a service could be used for foreign influence operations.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo signaled the administration’s interest in the legislation last week, noting Mr. Warner’s and Mr. Rubio’s work on the TikTok issue in an interview with Bloomberg. She said the administration was “working with them.”
Press aides at the White House, peppered last week with questions about the app, also responded by pointing at Congress. A White House spokeswoman, Olivia Dalton, said on Tuesday that “we’re looking at what else we might be able to do, including working with Congress.” And Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, pointed to Mr. Biden’s support for limits on data collection by major tech companies.
“And — and, look, we’re going to continue to — again, to call on Congress,” she said.
Kirsten Noyes contributed research.