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Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin wants to buy TikTok

The ex-Trump official says the ByteDance-owned social video platform should be in the hands of an American business.

The ex-Trump official says the ByteDance-owned social video platform should be in the hands of an American business.

Steve Mnuchin. (Public domain photo)
Steve Mnuchin. (Public domain photo)

Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says he is working with a group of investors who are interested in acquiring social video platform TikTok from its China-based parent company.

The affirmation, made during a television interview on Thursday, comes one day after federal lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure that would ban TikTok from being distributed in major app stores unless ByteDance divests its U.S.-based business to a domestic third party.

The measure is now headed to the U.S. Senate, where it is uncertain if it will pass. However, the proposal has broad support on both sides of the political aisle, and President Joseph Biden has signaled his intention to sign the bill into law if it comes across his desk.

“I think the legislation should pass, and I think it should be sold,” Mnuchin said during an appearance on CNBC early Thursday morning. “It’s a great business, and I’m going to put together a group to buy TikTok.”

Mnuchin didn’t say which investors had been approached, or who has committed to working with him to acquire TikTok. The Chinese government, which regulates ByteDance as it does other companies, has inferred it will not support a divestiture of the app’s U.S.-based business and could sue the government over any efforts to do just that.

ByteDance is valued around $220 billion, according to data from PitchBook. The company is likely to fetch less if it is forced to sell its business in the United States as part of a legislative effort, CNBC reported.

Mnuchin is not the only company interested in buying TikTok: Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal said former Activision CEO Bobby Kotick privately expressed his desire to buy ByteDance during a private conversation with the company’s co-founder Zhang Yiming. He offered the same sentiment during a private soirée attended by OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and others, the Journal revealed.

While the divestiture has the support of lawmakers, it might not be a smooth transaction: A sale to a major technology firm like Google parent Alphabet or Facebook’s parent Meta — or someone of similar standing and scale — would likely face regulatory scrutiny by numerous government bodies, including the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission.

But a sale to a U.S.-based company would also allow TikTok to be governed by certain regulations that cover domestic technology businesses and services, something that can be extremely difficult to impose on a service when its parent company is based in a country like China.

Without offering specific evidence, federal and state lawmakers have expressed concern over how ByteDance collects and uses data about its users. Over the past few years, accusations have been levied that ByteDance has collected information about military facilities and journalists as part of a broader surveillance effort that benefits the Chinese government.

TikTok, owned by ByteDance, allows users to share short-form video content. (Photo via Unsplash)
TikTok, owned by ByteDance, allows users to share short-form video content. (Photo via Unsplash)

ByteDance and Chinese government officials have denied the accusations. Faced with charges that TikTok improperly spied on journalists, ByteDance dismissed the matter as limited in scope, performed by a small handful of employees who abused the system and were later disciplined. The company also says it does not engage in data-driven espionage against U.S. military bases or government facilities.

Those statements have not convinced lawmakers and regulators. Many federal agencies ban TikTok from being installed on work devices, or being accessed on personal devices that are located in government facilities and military bases. Some states have imposed similar restrictions.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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