The top attorney for TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance said Friday the Biden administration hasn’t given any feedback to the company since TikTok’s CEO testified in Congress last week.
During a panel conversation at a conference in San Francisco that featured top government officials, tech executives and journalists, TikTok and ByteDance’s general counsel Erich Andersen also said TikTok has given user data to the U.S. government in response to requests related to law enforcement.
The comments come as the social media behemoth is under intense scrutiny over concerns it could hand user data to the Chinese government or push pro-Beijing propaganda and misinformation on its behalf.
Leaders at the FBI, CIA and officials at other government agencies have warned that ByteDance could be forced to give user data – such as browsing history, IP addresses and biometric identifiers – to Beijing under a 2017 law that compels companies to co-operate with the government for matters involving China’s national security. Another Chinese law, implemented in 2014, has similar mandates.
To assuage concerns from U.S. officials, TikTok has been emphasizing a $1.5 billion proposal, called Project Texas, to store all U.S. user data on servers owned and maintained by the software giant Oracle. Under the plan, access to U.S. data would be managed by U.S. employees through a separate entity called TikTok U.S. Data Security, which is run independently of ByteDance and monitored by outside observers.
Some lawmakers have said that’s not enough. But despite skepticism about the project, TikTok says it is moving forward anyway.
“We’re investing in a system where people don’t have to believe the Chinese government and they don’t have to believe us,” Andersen said.
He also wondered if the skepticism was being driven by something else.
“Where are we falling short here?” he said. “At some point you get beyond the cybersecurity risk assessment, et cetera, and you get to ‘We don’t like your nationality.’”
TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew has said the company started deleting all historic U.S. user data from non-Oracle servers this month and expects that process to be completed this year. During a congressional hearing held last week, Chew said migrating the data to Oracle will keep it out of China’s hands, but also acknowledged China-based employees may still have access to it before the process wraps up.
“We’re trying to make it physically impossible for the Chinese government to get the U.S. user data,” Andersen said on Friday.
TikTok maintains it has never been requested to turn over any kind of data and won’t do so if asked. But whether those promises, or Project Texas, will allow it to stay operating in the U.S. remains to be seen.
The U.S., as well as Britain, the European Union and others, have banned TikTok on government devices. And the Biden administration is reportedly threatening a U.S. ban on the app unless its Chinese owners divest their stakes in the company.
On Friday, Andersen said a ban would be “basically giving up”.
“Banning a platform like TikTok is a defeat, it’s a statement that we aren’t creative enough to find another way,” he said.
China has said it would oppose a possible sale, a declaration that makes it more difficult for TikTok to position itself and ByteDance as a global enterprise instead of a Chinese company.
“They were clear about their point of view back in 2020 timeframe when we faced an existential challenge from executive orders under the Trump administration,” Andersen said.
In 2020, then-President Donald Trump sought to force ByteDance to sell off its U.S. assets and ban TikTok from app stores. Courts blocked Trump’s efforts, and President Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s orders after taking office.
Meanwhile, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been pushing bills that would effectively ban TikTok or give the administration more authority to do so. One bill by U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley was blocked this week by Sen. Rand Paul, the only Republican who has come out in opposition to a TikTok ban. A small number of progressive lawmakers have also said they would oppose a ban, and argued the U.S. should implement a national privacy law to curtail the problem.
Andersen said Friday TikTok would support broad-based privacy legislation, and doesn’t want one that’s “targeted” at one company.
TikTok could also be banned through another bill, called the RESTRICT Act, that has garnered broad bipartisan support in the Senate and backing from the White House. The legislation does not call out TikTok but would give the Commerce Department power to review and potentially restrict foreign threats to technology platforms.