President Donald Trump has said he will bar fast-growing social media app TikTok from the United States as US authorities raise concerns the service could be a tool for Chinese intelligence.
US officials and legislators in recent weeks have voiced fears of the wildly popular video platform being used by Beijing for nefarious purposes, but the company has denied any links to the Chinese government.
Media reports earlier on Friday said Trump would require the US operations of the app be divested from its Chinese parent firm ByteDance, but the president later announced a ban.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on Friday, Trump said: “As far as TikTok is concerned, we’re banning them from the United States.”
He added he would take action as soon as Saturday using emergency economic power or an executive order.
Trump’s move came following a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) in the US, which investigates deals affecting the country’s national security.
TikTok, especially popular with young audiences who create and watch its short-form videos, has an estimated one billion users worldwide.
Queried by AFP, TikTok declined to comment on the reports of the forced sales, saying: “We are confident in the long-term success of TikTok.”
“Hundreds of millions of people come to TikTok for entertainment and connection, including our community of creators and artists who are building livelihoods from the platform.”
‘We are not political’
The firm this week pledged a high level of transparency, including allowing reviews of its algorithms, to assure users and regulators.
“We are not political, we do not accept political advertising and have no agenda – our only objective is to remain a vibrant, dynamic platform for everyone to enjoy,” TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer said in a post this week.
“TikTok has become the latest target, but we are not the enemy.”
TikTok’s fun, goofy videos and ease of use has made it immensely popular, and US tech giants like Facebook and Snapchat see it as a competitive threat. It said it has tens of millions of US users.
But its Chinese ownership has raised concerns about the censorship of videos, including those critical of the Chinese government, and the potential for sharing user data with Chinese officials.
TikTok maintains it does not censor videos based on topics sensitive to China and it would not give the Chinese government access to US user data even if asked. The company has hired a US CEO and a former top Disney executive in an attempt to distance itself from its Chinese ownership.
The popularity of the platform surged after ByteDance acquired US-based app Musical.ly in 2017 and merged it with its own video service.
James Lewis, head of the technology policy programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he believes the security risk of using TikTok is “close to zero” but that ByteDance could face pressure from China to engage in censorship.
“It looks like ByteDance may be getting squeezed by Beijing, so making them divest makes sense,” Lewis said. “They could start censoring stuff.”
Lewis said US authorities under CFIUS have the power to unwind an acquisition previously approved and that a similar action was taken in 2019 with the dating app Grindr after a Chinese firm bought it.
Other countries are also taking action against TikTok. India last month banned dozens of Chinese apps, including TikTok, citing privacy concerns, amid tensions between the countries.