The prospect of TikTok being banned in America is becoming increasingly likely as regulators and lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have the popular video app in their crosshairs over its ties to China – and one regulatory expert says recent events leave the U.S. "no choice" but to restrict the social media giant.
Nazak Nikakhtar, a former U.S. assistant secretary of Commerce and current chair of the national security practice at Wiley Rein LLP, told FOX Business the latest developments indicate there are few options left for the U.S. government to mitigate the national security risks posed by Americans' use of the app.
TikTok is in the midst of an ongoing security review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), an interagency group that evaluates threats to U.S. national security posed by foreign investments or transactions.
CFIUS has been looking into TikTok since 2019 and last week threatened to ban TikTok unless the app's Beijing-based parent company ByteDance divests its stake in the platform’s U.S. operations amid concerns that the Chinese government has access to user's data.
Nikakhtar said that move by the Biden administration marked a significant escalation in the debate.
Nikakhtar has extensive experience auditing and evaluating Chinese companies on behalf of the U.S. government, and said regulators found national security risks associated with the use of the TikTok app and likely tried to mitigate them.
However, she added that forcing ByteDance to divest still would not solve the problem, because TikTok's software was created by a Chinese entity and would still hold those characteristics like manipulative algorithms if it were spun off.
On Thursday – just hours before TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appeared before Congress to assure lawmakers ByteDance would not share U.S. user data with Beijing – The Wall Street Journal reported China's Commerce Ministry announced it would "firmly oppose" the forced sale or divesture of Tiktok.
Nikakhtar, who is an expert in CFIUS investigations and protocols, said the Chinese government's opposition to a TikTok sale means the U.S. "has no choice but to address the grave national security risks through any other mechanisms," and pointed to just two: Ban TikTok from the U.S, and/or put ByteDance on the Entity List that restricts certain foreign businesses deemed to be a threat.
However, if federal regulators are not willing to issue a ban, Congress must step in and do so, according to Nikakhtar, who was born in Iran and lived through the revolution.
She said it is dangerous to allow surveillance states like China to have access to Americans' data or manipulate what Americans see through algorithms, because we are in an information war and our enemies will seek to use whatever they can against the U.S.
"Americans just don't understand with these crazy, fanatical, totalitarian regimes," Nikakhtar told FOX Business, saying surveillance states will try every single method possible to weaken their adversaries. "For me, having been born in a country that just went to totalitarian, it's so easy for me to see it."
For now, Nikakhtar encourages U.S. TikTok users to find another platform on their own.
"You don't want to embolden somebody who's trying to destroy America and destroy America's friends," she explained. "At the same time, you don't want your brain infused with what they want you to understand rather than what the truth is."
FOX Business' Eric Revell contributed to this report.