TikTok is about to survive President Trump. Now the company could become an early test of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s attitude towards Chinese tech companies.
Mr Trump last year urged TikTok’s Chinese owner ByteDance to sell the viral video app. He said TikTok has raised urgent national security concerns as the Chinese government could gain access to user data. The dispute disrupted the app’s stratospheric ascent.
ByteDance and the Trump administration are still talking, said those familiar with the matter. However, it is becoming more and more likely that the app’s fate will not be decided by Mr. Trump, who announced his demands with great gusto that summer, backed off a deal he approved a month later, and then turned his attention to other areas .
Instead, the future of TikTok will fall into the hands of Mr Biden, who said little about the company or broader, bipartisan concerns about the growing influence of Chinese tech companies.
On Tuesday, the U.S. government agreed to extend a deadline in a court battle over restrictions on TikTok. The new deadline is February 18, almost a month after Mr Biden took office.
“My gut is that they hope to drive this out, and hope that this is on their backbone and that they can get around under the radar,” said Samm Sacks, a New America think tank official, of ByteDance’s approach to the final days of Trump -Administration.
Mr. Biden said America must be tougher on Beijing, calling China President Xi Jinping a “thug”. But he offered few details on how this approach would work. He just said that – unlike Mr. Trump’s patchwork aggression – he will try to have more consistent policies towards the country while putting pressure on issues like American intellectual property theft.
A spokesman for Mr Biden’s transition team declined to comment on the president-elect’s plans. TikTok declined to comment.
A finance spokeswoman said in a statement that the risks associated with the app “have not changed and the order in which the sale is required is”.
The government has worked with ByteDance and others to address the concerns, the spokeswoman said, adding, “This work will continue and the Attorney General has the authority to take any steps necessary to enforce the order.”
TikTok is far from the only company involved in Biden’s approach to Chinese tech giants, who have increasingly tried to reach customers around the world. For years, Mr Trump’s administration urged American airlines and their overseas allies to remove Chinese telecommunications devices from 5G cellular networks. Attempts have been made to keep important equipment away from Chinese semiconductor manufacturers. Then it turned to consumer apps, tried to ban TikTok and WeChat, and forced the sale of the dating app Grindr.
This month, Mr. Trump banned Alipay, owned by a subsidiary of Chinese giant Alibaba, and a collection of other apps. The bans will not go into effect for 45 days, meaning that the planning and implementation of the bans is the responsibility of Mr Biden’s administration.
TikTok has grown in popularity over the past year, especially with younger users who are recording lip-sync videos, comedy bits, and riffs on other videos. According to TikTok, the national security concerns are unfounded. The data is stored in the USA and backed up in Singapore.
Mr Trump’s efforts to separate the service from its Chinese parent company began this summer when he placed two executive orders for the app. American companies were banned from using the app and effectively banned. A second order required ByteDance to sell the app. The approach gave the government some leverage: if the company made the sale, the administration would lift the other restrictions.
In September, ByteDance announced that it had hit a deal it hoped would please the U.S. government. Software giant Oracle and Walmart would take over their own shares in TikTok, Oracle would manage the data flowing through the app, and those in charge of the service would be American citizens.
Mr Trump said on Sept. 19 that he approved the deal. But then he pulled back, voicing concerns that there would not be enough of the app’s ownership in American hands. Talks to complete the deal have continued since then.
TikTok received several renewals from the U.S. Foreign Investment Committee, a group of federal officials who look into doing business with international companies. The Trump administration has decided not to extend the deadline beyond December 4, but has refused to meet the deadline. Under Mr. Trump’s order, the Justice Department has the authority to enforce his demands.
Federal judges have also put the administration’s ban on hold and removed some of their leverage over the app. The government has appealed the rulings.
Walmart declined to comment. Oracle did not respond to a request for comment.
Some people on ByteDance’s side of the negotiating table believe there are benefits in getting a deal before Mr. Trump leaves. This would give the company more confidence about the app’s future rather than waiting to see what Mr. Biden would do.
Right now, if ByteDance wants to delay a deal beyond the Trump administration, “they don’t have to do anything and they can survive,” said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He said if the administration took legal action to force the app to be sold, ByteDance would “only stall it in court”.
But TikTok’s fate under Mr. Biden is far from certain.
If he wanted to provide TikTok with immediate relief from the pressure, Mr. Biden could overturn the executive order that was to cut him off from American corporations. He could also cancel the order ordering ByteDance to sell the app.
Mr Biden’s administration could also consider a wider range of measures, aside from a full sale, to address federal panel concerns about TikTok, experts said.
This can take some time. The new administration still holds key positions to address the issue, which means it could be months before ByteDance is able to resolve the government’s divestment order. And without repealing the anti-TikTok policies, it could be difficult for the Biden government to withdraw from the government’s defense of those policies in court.
Mr Biden could also choose to take a tougher line against the app, as he seeks to balance a desire for coherent China policy with pressures from lawmakers on both parties concerned about the risks associated with Chinese tech companies .
While the talks between ByteDance and the government continue privately, TikTok has continued lobbying to convince government officials that they have nothing to fear from the app, which uses the cheery “Make Your Day” tagline.
On December 18, the company sent a copy of its email newsletter to policy makers in Washington. It was reported that small businesses in Austin, Texas were using the app to reach customers, that the company was donating $ 10 million to academic institutions with public health programs, and that the service had updated its terms of service to include police bullying to improve.
The newsletter footer ended with the same message as always: “We hope this made your day.”