TikTok divestment bill would give government stronger legal position, US DOJ says

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. government would be in a stronger legal position if lawmakers ordered China’s ByteDance to divest TikTok, rather than simply banning the short video app used by 170 million Americans, the Justice Department told Congress in a document seen by Reuters.

Lawmakers and the Biden administration say TikTok poses enormous national security risks because the Chinese government could gain access to data from millions of American users.

The Justice Department gave a classified briefing to members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday before the panel voted 50-0 on a bill to give ByteDance six months to divest short video app TikTok or face a U.S. ban.

The briefing included the one-page unclassified document seen by Reuters, which also said TikTok poses “key national security concerns” because it “collects tremendous amounts of sensitive data” and added Chinese ownership puts “TikTok’s American users at risk.”

The Justice Department document, titled “Threat Posed by TikTok,” said any bill needs to separate the company from Beijing and its Chinese-based parent and that a divestment has key advantages over a ban.

Existing laws “have limits that make it challenging to effectuate that separation and fully address the national security risks,” the Justice Department document said.

A prior attempt to ban TikTok by then President Donald Trump in late 2020 was blocked by the courts.

“An orderly divestment of TikTok from (China) would give Americans secure ownership of their data, including posts, photos and videos while minimizing the disruption to the over 100 million TikTok accounts in the United States,” the document said.

“Working through ByteDance, the PRC (People’s Republic of China) could use TikTok to access data on millions of U.S. users and control the software on millions of U.S. devices,” it added.

House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers cited the briefing as a key reason members supported the divestment bill.

Rodgers said the FBI, Justice Department and other agencies worked with the committee for months to provide assistance on a “targeted specific approach” to addressing concerns. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco was directly involved in discussions with lawmakers, a source said.

TikTok, which says it has not and would not share U.S. user data with the Chinese government, said on Thursday the “legislation has a predetermined outcome: a total ban of TikTok in the United States.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington;Editing by Chris Reese and Nia Williams)