Finding a Buyer for TikTok May Not Be So Easy

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The Biden medication is pushing TikTok’s Chinese owners to merchantability the app oregon look a imaginable ban. But determination are galore complications to uncovering a suitor.

Shou Zi Chew, successful  a achromatic  garment  and bluish  jacket, leans against a table, a colorful TikTok show  down  him.
TikTok’s main executive, Shou Zi Chew, is scheduled to attest earlier the House Energy and Commerce Committee adjacent week.Credit...Ore Huiying for The New York Times

March 16, 2023, 6:12 p.m. ET

TikTok has what galore Silicon Valley companies lust after: A culture-making instrumentality beloved by 100 cardinal Americans and deep-pocketed advertisers.

That doesn’t mean they volition enactment up to bargain it.

TikTok said connected Wednesday that the Biden medication was pushing the company’s Chinese owners to merchantability the app oregon look a imaginable ban. But determination are astir apt fewer companies, successful the tech manufacture oregon elsewhere, consenting oregon capable to bargain it, analysts and experts say.

At a terms of $50 cardinal oregon much — the worth immoderate analysts said TikTok could bid — the societal media level would beryllium excessively costly for galore companies, including competitors similar Snap. The tech giants that could spend it, specified arsenic Facebook proprietor Meta, Google and Microsoft, are apt to shy distant for fearfulness of getting caught successful years of antitrust scrutiny successful the United States. Then there’s the headache of owning a societal media company, and figuring retired however to grip the endless flood of toxic content.

In addition, it remains unclear however TikTok would afloat unravel itself from ByteDance, its genitor institution successful China, oregon whether immoderate woody would beryllium approved by the Chinese government.

TikTok “has a batch of baggage, and that baggage means that it’s hard to marque this a reality,” said Brian Wieser, an autarkic advisor who focuses connected the media and advertizing industries.

There whitethorn beryllium different options, specified arsenic a backstage equity institution swooping successful with an connection with a partner, oregon ByteDance spinning disconnected TikTok into a stand-alone nationalist company. But if determination are a constricted fig of imaginable suitors it whitethorn complicate the White House’s efforts, and proceed to resistance retired what has already been a yearslong conflict betwixt Washington and the company.


The TikTok gathering successful Culver City, Calif. Employee morale has waned arsenic authorities bans and authorities targeting the institution person taken off.Credit...Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

TikTok has been successful the transverse hairs of some the Trump and Biden administrations, some of which person said that the app poses a nationalist information threat. Lawmakers have been progressively concerned that TikTok could enactment delicate idiosyncratic data, similar determination information, into the hands of the Chinese government. They person pointed to laws that let Beijing to secretly request information from Chinese companies and citizens for intelligence-gathering operations.

More than 2 twelve states person issued bans of the app connected state-owned devices, and respective pieces of national authorities are besides aimed astatine banning TikTok.

John F. Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, declined to remark connected Thursday astir whether the medication was pushing ByteDance to merchantability TikTok. But helium said that “we person morganatic nationalist information concerns here, and extracurricular of each that, we proceed to enactment bipartisan authorities that’s designed to code those information concerns posed by definite foreign-owned user apps.”

The 2 nations are jockeying for power connected the planetary stage, maneuvering for advantages connected land, successful the system and successful cyberspace.

  • Submarine Deal: President Biden took his astir assertive measurement yet to antagonistic China’s subject enlargement successful the Asia-Pacific region, formally unveiling plans with Britain and Australia to develop and deploy nuclear-powered onslaught submarines.
  • Increasing Hostility: Days aft Xi Jinping denounced what helium called a U.S.-led run of “encirclement and suppression of China,” the apical U.S. quality authoritative warned that Beijing is progressively convinced that it tin lone grow its powerfulness by diminishing American influence.
  • Industrial Espionage: The downfall of a Chinese quality cause reveals the astonishing extent of Chinese efforts to bargain American commercialized secrets and intelligence property.
  • Support for Russia: As China sends Russia ample volumes of goods that either civilians oregon the subject could use, U.S. officials person vowed to ace down connected specified shipments, but that has proved hard to police.

TikTok said this week that it was weighing its options and that a information connection it offered the authorities successful August offered the champion extortion for American users. Under the proposal, the institution would walk much than $1.5 cardinal to cordon disconnected entree to delicate U.S. idiosyncratic information and connection oversight and transparency astir its contented recommendations.

How Times reporters screen politics. We trust connected our journalists to beryllium autarkic observers. So portion Times unit members whitethorn vote, they are not allowed to endorse oregon run for candidates oregon governmental causes. This includes participating successful marches oregon rallies successful enactment of a question oregon giving wealth to, oregon raising wealth for, immoderate governmental campaigner oregon predetermination cause.

The company’s main executive, Shou Zi Chew, who is Singaporean, is scheduled to attest earlier the House Energy and Commerce Committee adjacent Thursday. Lawmakers are expected to question him astir the app’s ties to China and the contented it delivers to young people.

Maureen Shanahan, a spokeswoman for TikTok, said successful a statement: “If protecting nationalist information is the objective, divestment doesn’t lick the problem: A alteration successful ownership would not enforce immoderate caller restrictions connected information flows oregon access.”

A big of exertion companies declined to remark oregon did not respond to requests for remark connected Thursday astir their involvement successful buying TikTok, including Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft and Twitter.


National Security Council spokesperson John F. Kirby past month. He declined to remark connected Thursday astir whether the medication was pushing ByteDance to merchantability TikTok.Credit...Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

The Biden administration’s propulsion for a merchantability mirrors the effort by the Trump medication 3 years ago. At that time, Mr. Trump threatened to prohibition TikTok from Apple and Google’s app stores unless the app was sold to an American company. A radical of national agencies that reappraisal nationalist information concerns related to overseas companies, known arsenic the Committee connected Foreign Investment successful the United States, oregon CFIUS, had recommended specified a move.

Possible buyers for the app included Microsoft and the unreality computing institution Oracle. But the Chinese authorities issued export restrictions successful August 2020 that perchance allowed Beijing to artifact a sale. While Oracle and Walmart yet seemed to scope an statement to bargain stakes successful the app, resolving Mr. Trump’s concerns, the woody ne'er closed.

Multiple national courts aboriginal ruled that Mr. Trump did not person the authorization to prohibition the app, limiting the government’s leverage successful the case. (Oracle has since been moving with TikTok to assistance it store U.S. idiosyncratic information successful home servers and has been a cardinal spouse successful its program to assuage nationalist information concerns.)

When President Biden took office, the medication initially focused connected negotiating a woody done CFIUS with TikTok that would settee the concerns without a forced sale. The institution assumed its talks would resoluteness soon aft it submitted a 90-page connection to the medication successful August, but its efforts person been stymied by respective revelations astir however ByteDance and TikTok person mishandled U.S. idiosyncratic data.

And now, immoderate imaginable merchantability looks adjacent much analyzable than before.

“It’s overmuch much fraught connected each levels connected the economics of it,” said Glenn S. Gerstell, elder advisor the Center for Strategic & International Studies and the erstwhile wide counsel of the National Security Agency. “TikTok present has 2 years of idiosyncratic growth, it’s acold much entrenched successful presumption of its presumption successful American societal media, and intelligibly the tensions with China person greatly increased.”

Antitrust officials astatine the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are progressively acrophobic astir attempts by tech giants to bargain different companies. The F.T.C. unsuccessfully challenged Meta’s acquisition of a tiny virtual world start-up and is trying to artifact Microsoft from buying the video crippled powerhouse Activision Blizzard.

“I deliberation the full interest with tech level dominance would beryllium a origin successful what purchaser oregon buyers would beryllium acceptable,” said William J. Baer, a erstwhile caput of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. “A tech level would legitimately person to deliberation astir the antitrust hazard of buying thing that, portion not straight a competitor, would beryllium seen arsenic expanding the dominance of that level successful the tech space.”

The uncertainty astir TikTok’s aboriginal has been felt by its U.S. employees, who are dispersed among locations including Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New York and Washington. Morale astatine the institution has waned arsenic authorities bans and authorities targeting TikTok person gained traction, according to 3 employees who spoke connected the information of anonymity.

TikTok leaders concisely addressed a imaginable divestment during a companywide livestream connected Tuesday, wherever executives told employees that a divestment would not code the U.S. government’s concerns, according to 2 of the employees.

In an interior enactment sent aft quality broke astir the Biden administration’s push, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s caput of nationalist argumentation for the Americas, called the Biden administration’s propulsion a “developing situation” and said that “divestment doesn’t lick anything” if protecting nationalist information is the objective. He added that the company’s strategy to physique systems to store U.S. idiosyncratic information connected U.S.-based servers monitored by a 3rd enactment “remains the same.”

“We consciousness powerfully that this speech should see the manufacture astatine ample and not beryllium based connected wherever a institution was founded," Mr. Beckerman wrote.

Ryan Mac and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.

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