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Sweeping spending bill would ban TikTok on government devices

The possible ban comes even as TikTok works to persuade the U.S. government to approve a plan that would subject the company to aggressive oversight

A visitor at an Apple store wears a T-shirt promoting TikTok in Beijing in July 2020. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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Democrats and Republicans on Tuesday included language in a must-pass omnibus spending bill that would, for the first time, ban federal employees from downloading the TikTok app to their government-issued phones and other devices — the latest sign of worries about the company’s Chinese ownership.

TikTok, one of the internet’s most popular apps, has come to dominate culture on and off the internet, creating mounting consternation among government officials wary of putting any power in the hands of a rival superpower. Its rapid growth has also unnerved rival social media platforms such as Facebook parent company Meta.

TikTok counts more than 100 million users across the United States, making its prohibition on government-issued devices largely symbolic. But the move comes alongside similar bans in 19 states, all led by Republican governors, and calls from lawmakers such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to ban the app for all phones across the United States.

How TikTok ate the internet

“People are catching up to the fact that China is a hostile power,” said James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lewis noted that China has banned American-developed apps like Facebook and Twitter. “TikTok is caught up in that — guilty or not,” he said.

Since 2019, TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, has been negotiating an agreement with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a secretive cross-government group with the power to squash business deals that could pose concerns to national security.

The details of those negotiations have not been made public. But four people with knowledge of the discussions — who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the conversations publicly — say TikTok has agreed to sever decision-making over its U.S. operations from ByteDance, and also to give U.S. authorities veto power over the appointment of the company’s proposed three-member board and its top executives.

The four people said U.S. officials also would set the standards for the hiring of TikTok’s U.S. staff, a scheme that would subject the company to far more aggressive government oversight than currently faced by any U.S. technology firm. They also said the company already has spent more than $1.5 billion on implementing the plan, known within the company as Project Texas.

The plan, the four people said, would prevent U.S. user data from being accessed by Chinese government officials or ByteDance employees in Beijing. It also foresees the selection, with U.S. government approval, of third-party monitors that would independently audit the platform’s recommendation algorithms and content-moderation systems to help prevent any foreign influence in the videos people see, the people said.

The company has begun outlining the plan to Biden administration officials in hopes of building support, and a CFIUS working group expressed initial support, the people said. But the company last presented the blueprint to CFIUS in August, and officials with the panel have yet to approve it, leaving the matter unresolved even as more government bans take hold.

Officials in the administration have said that no agreement is imminent and that the agencies are still deliberating over whether to approve this plan or pursue a different approach.

Brooke Oberwetter, a TikTok spokesperson, called the decision to include the ban of TikTok on government-issued devices in the omnibus bill a “political gesture that will do nothing to advance national security interests.”

“We’re disappointed that Congress has moved to ban TikTok on government devices … rather than encouraging the administration to conclude its national security review,” Oberwetter said. The company’s implementation of its data-security plan is “well underway,” Oberwetter said, and the company is continuing to brief lawmakers on their proposal.

The provision to bar TikTok from government devices was included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill to fund the U.S. government through most of 2023. Top Democrats and Republicans unveiled the bill early Tuesday; Congress must pass the measure by Friday to avoid a partial government shutdown.

Under the bill, the White House Office of Management and Budget would have 60 days “to develop standards and guidelines for executive agencies requiring the removal” of TikTok from federal devices.

TikTok is already banned from government devices at the White House, most branches of the military and several federal agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security and State.

Vanessa Pappas, chief operating officer of TikTok, told Congress in September that the company’s Chinese employees abide by strict access controls over U.S. data and do not provide information to China.

The inclusion of the TikTok provision underscored the growing bipartisan anti-China fervor in Congress and growing Republican efforts to try to paint the Biden administration as weak on China. Just last week, the Senate unanimously backed a bill to prohibit TikTok on government devices. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who introduced the legislation, called TikTok “a Trojan Horse for the Chinese Communist Party” that is causing major security risks for the United States.

“After years of talk, the TikTok ban will be the first major strike against Big Tech enacted into law,” he tweeted Tuesday after the bill was released.

TikTok has become a prominent punching bag for Republicans in Washington, who claim without evidence that the company functions as a spy or propagandist for the Chinese government.

Meta earlier this year worked to undermine TikTok, its biggest competitor, by paying a major Republican consulting firm to run a nationwide lobbying and media campaign portraying TikTok as a danger to American society, as The Post first reported in March.

Leaders on both sides of the aisle, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), backed the legislation.

Utah bans TikTok from public devices, joining other Republican states

But even many who agree that Chinese espionage should be a concern think that banning the app from government devices does little. Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that over the past 20 years China’s cyberespionage has been aggressive and should be a legitimate concern.

“So is there a reason to be worried? Yes,” Lewis said. “Does [the proposed ban] change the security picture? Not that much.”