The Biden administration is demanding that TikTok’s Chinese owners sell their stakes in the video-sharing app or face a possible U.S. ban of the app, according to people familiar with the matter.

The move represents a major shift in policy on the part of the administration, which has been under fire from some Republicans who say it hasn’t taken a tough enough stance to address the perceived security threat from TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd. 

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or Cfius—a multiagency federal task force that oversees national security risks in cross-border investments—made the sale demand recently, the people said. 

TIKTOK CONSIDERING SPLITTING FROM CHINA’S BYTEDANCE IF DEAL WITH US FAILS: REPORT

TikTok in app store

The Treasury Department’s foreign investment committee is reportedly threatening to ban TikTok unless it splits from its China-based parent company, ByteDance. ((Photo Ilustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images) / Getty Images)

TikTok executives have said that 60% of ByteDance shares are owned by global investors, 20% by employees and 20% by its founders, though the founders’ shares carry outsize voting rights, as is common with tech companies. The company was founded in Beijing in 2012 by Zhang Yiming, ByteDance Chief Executive Liang Rubo and others.

TikTok said Wednesday that a forced sale wouldn’t address the perceived security risk. It has pledged to spend $1.5 billion on a program to safeguard U.S. user data and content from Chinese government access or influence.

“If protecting national security is the objective, divestment doesn’t solve the problem: a change in ownership would not impose any new restrictions on data flows or access, ” TikTok spokeswoman Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement. 

“The best way to address concerns about national security is with the transparent, U.S.-based protection of U.S. user data and systems, with robust third-party monitoring, vetting, and verification, which we are already implementing,” Ms. Oberwetter said.

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The Treasury Department, which leads Cfius, declined to comment. 

The negotiations with Cfius over a way to secure TikTok’s data have been going on for more than two years and have been at a stalemate for months, The Wall Street Journal has reported previously, with Pentagon and Justice Department representatives on the panel among those supporting a forced sale.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and other senior U.S. officials have repeatedly cited China’s national security law, which requires companies there to turn over customer data if requested, as fueling their concerns.

“Our intelligence community has been very clear about China’s efforts and intention to mold the use of this technology using data in a worldview that is completely inconsistent with our own,”  Ms. Monaco said in an interview last month, in response to a question about TikTok. 

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senate intel committee witnesses

FBI Director Christopher Wray, Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Paul Nakasone, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William Burns and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier testify during a Se ((Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) / Getty Images)

TikTok says its $1.5 billion security plan would essentially wall off its U.S. operations, with all data being stored in the U.S. The plan also calls for giving a U.S. company, Oracle Corp., the ability to access the company’s algorithmic code and flag issues for government inspectors.

Critics have said that plan isn’t sufficient, saying any Chinese-owned company must comply with demands from Beijing if called upon.

It wasn’t immediately clear what the next step by the U.S. would be, and the people familiar with the matter say a resolution could be months away. TikTok’s chief executive, Shou Zi Chew, is scheduled to appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week to address lawmakers’ questions on the security issues. 

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In 2020, the Trump administration sought to force a sale of TikTok to U.S.-majority ownership, based on similar national security concerns. But that effort ultimately ran aground when TikTok and ByteDance went to court to block a proposed federal ban. The companies argued that the ban would violate a law known as the Berman amendments, which exempt cross-border communications from the president’s powers to address national security threats through economic sanctions. 

The Biden administration’s move against TikTok could face a lengthy and bumpy road as well. The company can argue that any forced sale would amount to a ban, because the Chinese government wouldn’t allow the TikTok algorithm to be sold along with it. The company also might be able to argue that the move would violate the Berman amendment, as well as the First Amendment. 

The Cfius move came at the same time that Senate lawmakers were rolling out a legislative proposal that could strengthen the government’s legal hand in dealing with perceived threats from foreign-owned apps. 

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TikTok logo

the federal government is in the process of banning TikTok from agency devices. (Photo: Fabian Sommer/dpa (Photo by Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images) / Getty Images)

That legislation by Sens. Mark Warner (D., Va.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and John Thune (R., S.D.), the Senate Republican whip, would require the Commerce Department to set up procedures to mitigate risks and potentially ban foreign technology. 

That could lead to a ban in appropriate circumstances for a specific platform or service. The measure was quickly endorsed by Biden administration officials. 

“This legislation would empower the United States government to prevent certain foreign governments from exploiting technology services operating in the United States in a way that poses risks to Americans’ sensitive data and our national security,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement. 

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White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre recently declined to say if Mr. Biden would ban TikTok if the bill passed and gave him the authority to do so, but acknowledged the White House had “concerns with this particular app.”

“We want to make sure that the digital products and services Americans use every day are safe and secure,” Ms. Jean-Pierre said.

The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Duehren, Sabrina Siddiqui and Stu Woo contributed to this article.

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